As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2
I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a bad critic going into Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre yesterday. I knew nothing about the actual play. I booked based solely on the fact that Nicole Kidman was in it and Michael Grandage was directing. I know. I’ve become a shallow celebrity obsessive. I’m sure Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner would pour shame upon my head.
So you don’t fall into the same trap, let me quickly fill you in on the basic concept. This new play, written by Anna Ziegler, is another 20th century-scientific-discovery play, a little like Oppenheimer. Photograph 51 is the photograph which proved that DNA had a double helix shape, therefore providing, in the words of the play, “the key to life”. The thing is, the scientist thought to have taken this x-ray, Rosalind Franklin (played by Kidman), has been more or less forgotten by the general public, over the Nobel Prize winners Crick, Watson and Wilkins.
Whilst Franklin, and her struggle to work in the male-dominated field of science in the 1950s is undeniably the central focus of this play, Ziegler doesn’t make the gender politics too simplistic; it’s made clear that it isn’t simply a case of men taking credit for women’s ideas, but rather a combination of circumstances and stacked up reasons over time. This subtlety was welcome in a production, which, I felt, made most of the characters rather two-dimensional.
To begin with, I felt the script was a little lazy a times; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of new dramas which, instead of carefully revealing a character – through odd phrases, snatched glances, and the way they interact with others -, simply have the person face the audience, take a pause from the drama, and proceed to talk about fond childhood memories and deep personal thoughts as though they’re on a psychologist’s couch. To make an audience understand your character we shouldn’t need some sort of Freudian analysis!
The real reason this was so irritating was that the acting was far better than I felt the script allowed for. Kidman commanded the stage when she was on; her British accent was unbelievably good, and she was possessed with a self-control and determination that almost made you excuse all of her character’s rudeness. Although Franklin herself was cold to many of her colleagues, the obvious passion for her own work that Kidman made clear meant that she wasn’t too cold a character overall.
The rest of the cast (all white males, who lurked at the back of the stage, as if constantly judging Franklin and her work) also performed well, although Kidman was by far the standout. Joshua Silver (previously seen in the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Blue Stockings) provided some nicely timed comic relief, as Raymond Gosling, Franklin’s assistant, and possibly the person who actually took the photo. I loved Patrick Kennedy as the most sympathetic of Franklin’s colleagues, Don Caspar; he did have one of the most likeable parts of course, but it was really in Kidman and Kennedy’s interactions that one truly got the excitement and joy of scientific discovery. Stephen Campbell Moore played Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague at King’s College London with bumbling awkwardness. One of my favourite actors, Edward Bennett (Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won for the RSC) played Crick, with an energetic, single-minded Will Attenborough as his scientific partner Watson. These two actors played their parts as well as possible, but just weren’t given enough to work with! We had tiny little glances into Crick’s home life with references to his wife, and then heavy soliloquies on Watson’s love of birds and natural curiosity, but these felt slightly clunky. However, the actors were engaging, and showed that Franklin’s difficulty with relationships was not unique; rather each scientist struggled, but Franklin was the only one judged for this, because of her gender.
The set was a nice mix of history and modern, with brick archways along the sides and back of the stage, complete with heaps of bricks around the bottom, as though we were in bombed out London. The stage itself was a grid of white panels which could light up in various arrangements to give the sense of lots of different rooms and spaces, which worked well.
For £10 tickets (thank you Michael Grandage Company!!), this was a really interesting evening out; the play is informative and engaging – despite having no interval for 95mins I wasn’t bored -, the acting is very well done, and there is both drama and moments of comedy. The gender issue is dealt with very competently, although I found it irritating that Wilkins in a way stole the ending from Franklin. The end was all about their potential relationship, not about Franklin as a person, her interests, her work, her untimely death, her life, which I felt was a huge mistake. There were also missed opportunities for explorations of what the ‘meaning to life’ really means; all the scientists were so focused on discovering the “key to life”; but is that key really just the structure of DNA, or is it something more, something emotional? There were just so many opportunities to do more with this play that weren’t explored fully enough. But I’m still really glad I saw this play – I was justified in my celebrity hunting, and learnt more a fascinating woman in the process.
Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre: 3/5 stars