Marking her first return to the West End since 1998, Nicole Kidman’s latest role in Photograph 51 is a refreshingly unconventional one. In personal tribute to her biochemist father, she plays the part of relatively unknown British Jewish scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin – the unsung heroine whose research led directly to the discovery of DNA. Unduly marginalised in the history of scientific discovery, this new play by Anna Ziegler attempts to redress the injustices of Franklin’s career, and draws us into the intriguing and often sexist world of science.
The action takes place between 1951 and 1953 in King’s College London, where Franklin and Maurice Wilkins work on the X-ray analysis of DNA. Frustrated by Franklin’s very private and meticulous ways, and seemingly patronised by her gender, Wilkins, determined to prove that their experiments are getting somewhere, shares Franklin’s infamous “photograph 51” with rival scientists Watson and Crick from Cambridge. Quicker to spot the double helical shape, it is they that claim the scientific breakthrough (and Nobel Prize) owed to Franklin – instead, she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and dies largely unacknowledged.
It would be easy for the play to create a tragic victim out of Franklin, but it avoids ever succumbing to overt theatricality: even after learning about her ‘defeat’, Franklin remains headstrong and unsentimental to the last. Instead the play performs well as a reminder of our incalculable debt to the lives and work of the unknown and uncelebrated figures of history. The set of the play, a bomb-blasted Gothic laboratory contrasted with contemporary bright LED floor lighting, seems a fitting tribute to the historic building blocks upon which so much scientific discovery depends.
A closed figure, obsessive about her work and driven by her own perfectionist standards, Franklin isn’t the typical protagonist of a drama. And yet Nicole Kidman, whose signature iciness makes her a perfect choice for the part, succeeds in playing Franklin with an aloofness that is alluring. In spite of the sexism around her – she is never referred to as Dr despite her PhD, and is excluded from the men-only common room – she commands a cool authority, often taking centre stage amidst others’ conversations, in a way that encourages quiet but powerful sympathy for her story.
Providing an illuminating contrast to Franklin and her professional integrity, Will Attenbrough and Edward Bennett make a lively pair as the famous though apparently double-dealing Watson and Crick. Their selfish drive for glory versus Franklin’s fastidious drive for knowledge is one of the more interesting issues within the field of science that the play throws up. Stephen Campbell Moore completes the solid cast as Franklin’s colleague, veering well between miffed boss and clumsy love interest, and casting a sad light on the emotional sacrifices of Franklin’s career.
While all of the elements of Photograph 51 are in themselves on point – the acting, the script, the story itself – it however reminds us why a play about science isn’t typical West End fare. The plot doesn’t always translate convincingly to the medium of theatre, and its attempt to create dramatic tension out of the excitement of scientific discovery does not always immerse us. But the play nevertheless gives a rare insight into the workings of scientific work, and its originality still makes it worth the ticket.