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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PHOTOGRAPH 51
at Noel Coward Theatre

SCIENCE AND SEXISM
By KATE BASSETT


If only she’d grasped it was a double helix. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) could, surely, have won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, had it not been for – well, a whole nexus of factors. Now enjoying its West End premiere, starring Nicole Kidman as Franklin, Anna Ziegler’s play focuses on the crystallographer whose scientific contribution was, for years, underappreciated because Francis Crick and James Watson pipped her to the post, unveiling their Nobel-winning model of deoxyribonucleic acid in 1953.
 
The Cambridge duo shared the said prize with only Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague from King’s College London. Without her consent, Wilkins had shown them photograph 51, a crucial X-ray diffraction image that her lab work had produced, but the significance of which she, ironically, hadn't recognised.
 
Following on from Anne Sayre and Brenda Maddox's biographies, Zeigler's play can be viewed as a significant contribution to feminism's ongoing fight for equality: a “her-story” that puts Dr Franklin centre stage, countering how she was sidelined by “his-story” (especially Watson's controversial memoirs). We see Kidman’s serious-minded, tweedy Franklin encountering thoughtless sexism on her arrival at King's in 1951­. Stephen Campbell Moore's Wilkins instantly riles her by presuming that she'll play second fiddle and announcing that he's off to lunch in the men-only Senior Common Room. Will Attenborough's ambitious, rapaciously prying Watson – a decidedly unflattering portrait – is soon encouraging his chums to write her off as a termagant.
 
Director Michael Grandage's fine ensemble ensures the old-school chauvinism on display is an affront as well as constituting a satirical comedy of manners. Albeit in period costume, the sexism seems horribly topical in the UK too, given the unreconstructed “trouble with girls” comments made in mid-2015 by the Nobel-winning biochemist Tim Hunt (then, though no longer, of University College London).
 
What's most interesting is that Photograph 51 isn't one-sided. Kidman's Franklin, while admirably doughty, is socially inept too. She's prickly and, in giving as good as she gets, just as bumptious as her male counterparts – a match for Wilkins in ways that sadly wreck any chance of teamwork. This play is also framed by her peers stepping out to narrate and take different angles on her.
 
The suggestion that Franklin, anxiously proof-seeking, lacked Watson and Crick's talent for imaginative theorising feels underdeveloped. The interweaving of storylines is slightly formulaic, alternating between her professional rivals and a potentially romantic admirer. And, in conveying Franklin's defensive inflexibility, Kidman constricts herself with a slightly rigid physicality (as well as having to maintain an English accent). So, in spite of presenting complexities, Ziegler hasn't quite discovered the secret of how to make Franklin's life spring into vibrant 3-D.
 
But, heaven forfend, I'm not asking for a dose of pure theatrical sildenafil citrate. Grandage's production is quietly illuminating, fluid and stunningly set in a charred neoclassical vault that represents the Blitz-damaged King's, but that also, poignantly, entombs Kidman's Franklin as she is robbed of her life by twin ovarian tumours, at the age of just 37.

 


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