Nicole Kidman is part of London’s theater lore: Her naked 1998 turn in “The Blue Room” spawned that grubby critical assessment, “Pure theatrical Viagra.” Returning to the West End 17 years later, she leaves nothing to chance. Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” is as safe a safe bet as you’ll find, a science play that sticks to the formula, a history play like every other and a star vehicle that doesn’t look like one. Directed by Michael Grandage, it’s never less than solid and never more than satisfying.
Kidman plays Dr. Rosalind Franklin — “Miss Franklin” to her patronizing male colleagues — whose X-ray studies of DNA molecules were key to the discovery of its double helix structure by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. The Cambridge pair got wind of her findings before she was ready to publish, realized their mistakes and raced ahead. Ziegler’s contention, whether accurate or not, is that Franklin would have gotten there herself with a little more respect and a little less stubbornness.
In other words, Ziegler refuses merely to blame a sexist (and anti-Semitic) academy that wouldn’t take female scientists seriously. Undoubtedly that played its part, but Franklin was frosty and uncollaborative — Kidman nails her “air of cool superiority” exactly — as well as being tentative and uncompromising, determined to pin her findings down before pressing ahead. Crick and Watson had no such qualms, but privilege allowed them to make mistakes. As a woman, Franklin had to prove herself. Her personality is, partly, a product of patriarchy. Ziegler ends with a cloud of “if onlys…”
It’s a perfect science-history play, with all the hurtling momentum of a race towards discovery, all the step-by-step deductions, competition and backhanded betrayals. If anything, it’s too perfect. You feel both history and science being smoothed out and simplified. The end result is never in doubt, since those onstage, recounting events, share in our hindsight, and Crick and Watson (Edward Bennett and Will Attenborough) sometimes slip into supervillainy. One’s in it for security, the other for legacy. Surely there was more to them than that? For a play about discovery, “Photograph 51” doesn’t stray far from easy answers.
Ziegler skims through the science too — phosphates, macromolecules, amino acids — where she might have found a metaphor for the complex, collaborative structures she endorses over science’s winner-takes-it-all individualism.
It might be that Grandage opts not to let that breathe. His effortless production glides through the plot as if sliding over ball bearings. Nothing snags; nothing slows. A single white tablecloth switches us from laboratory to restaurant, and the cast work like a relay team, picking up the story and passing it on. You’re always aware that, even now, it’s the men telling the story and dictating terms.
That makes Christopher Oram’s design — a high-walled, atmospheric crypt — an illuminating space, nudging the action into limbo. It’s as if these long-dead scientists were still bickering over their lives and their legacies. Crick and Watson stand in the background like marble statues — there’s a “Winter’s Tale” motif throughout — while Franklin freezes up in death, but goes without commemoration. Ziegler’s play brings her back to life.
Or rather it lets Kidman do so. This is a purpose-built star vehicle, and a clever choice at that. Five blustering, babbling men in tweed and one demure, dignified, well-dressed women. Kidman can’t but stand out and the less she does, the more she wins focus. She’s crisp and curt, but most of all still, and even statuesque. It’s a decisive performance, commanding because she’s so in control.
She has her male co-stars to thank, all fluster and fidgets that defer attention. Stephen Campbell Moore makes Wilkins, Franklin’s superior, a wet fish with more gut than guts, while Joshua Silver, as her Ph.D. student assistant Gosling, bumbles away in the background, nudged out of history by the Crick-Watson double act.