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The Theatreguide.London Review

Photograph 51
Noel Coward Theatre     Autumn 2015

Anna Ziegler's new docudrama is partly a painless history lesson and partly a vehicle for movie star Nicole Kidman. It succeeds admirably in both goals, but what it doesn't deliver is much in the way of drama. 

If this story of Rosalind Franklin had appeared fifty or even forty years ago it would have been a bombshell, because Franklin had quietly been written out of the standard account of the monumental discovery of the structure and chemistry of DNA.

But in recent decades the world has come to recognise her essential role in the adventure. (Briefly, Franklin took the remarkable microphotographs of single genes that enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to make the imaginative leap and guess what DNA probably looked like, and it was her painstaking analysis of the photographs that eventually proved that they had guessed right.) 

And so there's no real drama here. We either come in knowing how everything is going to turn out, or we follow it in the play's deliberately methodical way since the playwright implicitly rejects the race-to-be-first mentality of Watson and Crick, she doesn't allow us any suspense or mounting tension. 

Ziegler and director Michael Grandage tell the story clearly and fluidly, depending largely on having all the figures involved repeatedly break reality to narrate or explain what's going on. 

They also imagine convincing, if somewhat simplified, personalities for everyone Crick and especially Watson less driven by science than by the ambition to be first and the glory, Nobel Prize and girls winning the race would bring, and Maurice Wilkins (who shared the Nobel with them) little more than a go-between sneaking Franklin's results, which she was reluctant to share, to the others. 

And in the play's picture of Franklin herself, Nicole Kidman shares in the creation of a woman whose inherent coldness and ingrained need to be absolutely sure of anything before she went public combined with a perhaps unconscious resentment of the casual sexism and anti-Semitism of the 1950s to make her both a brilliant researcher and a loner unable to collaborate with others. 

Kidman plays completely against her own movie star image, erasing any hint of charm or sexuality but building an imposing portrait of a brilliant and single-minded intellect not so much repressing a softer side as never having been handicapped by having one. 

(The weakest section of Ziegler's script comes late in the play when she feels the need to suggest buried romantic yearnings in Franklin. By that point we have so fully accepted Kidman's characterisation that we just don't believe the misguided attempt to 'feminise' her.) 

In the play's characterising shorthand, Will Attenborough as Watson and Edward Bennett as Crick come across as undergraduates excited by an approaching big football game, and Stephen Campbell Moore's Wilkins as a dullard whose general blankness is represented by his unmalicious habit of addressing his colleague as 'Miss Franklin' when she has repeatedly asked to be called 'Doctor' (as she carefully addressed him).

Patrick Kennedy and Joshua Silver, as two junior scientists in Franklin's lab, are given little more to do than provide exposition and praise their seniors. 

A footnote: Rosalind Franklin died (of a cancer possibly generated by the X-rays she used in her photography) before Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded their Nobel Prize, and the prize is never given posthumously, so we'll never know how far the erasing her from the story would have gone.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Photograph 51  - Noel Coward Theatre 2015  
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