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It’s about time we in London saw a play about Rosalind Franklin; I remember thinking so when the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Oppenheimer early this year. That drama made it to the West End on its own merits; I wonder whether, without the megastar casting of Nicole Kidman, Anna Ziegler’s 2010 play Photograph 51 would have done likewise.
Kidman was last seen on the London stage in David Hare’s The Blue Room in 1998. This time her kit remains on, and dowdy: Franklin has eyes only for her X-ray crystallography work on DNA at King’s College, London, without which Crick and Watson over in Cambridge would almost certainly not have cracked the secret of the double helix. (The play is titled after Franklin’s crucial photo.) In Michael Grandage’s production, Kidman manages to animate the cold fish Franklin; her features are fluidly though not hugely mobile.
Ziegler’s narrative centres on the reserved, prickly relationship between Franklin and her nominal superior Maurice Wilkins; this is the spine on which the musculature of Historic Discovery is hung. Direct dialogue is intercut with narration, correspondence etc, virtually all of the latter material being delivered straight out to the audience. Everyone apart from Franklin argues about the facts of the discovery, including postdoctoral student Donald Caspar, who wasn’t even there at the time.
It seems at first to be an examination of divergent flavours of ambition: the driven versus the clubbable. Edward Bennett’s Francis Crick is the latter, as in his way is James Watson (Will Attenborough sporting a sandy Eraserhead quiff); Franklin is very definitely in the former camp, and Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore making an early foray into middle age) floats forlornly between the two.
However, the final quarter-hour or so of the 90-minute piece becomes increasingly glib and self-serving. The thesis seems more and more overtly to be that great knowledge comes at the expense of having a life — literally in the case of Franklin, who died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, possibly caused by the X-rays she worked with. A fantastical coda in which she and Wilkins bond over a shared fondness for Shakespeare dissipates the last possibilities that this might be art concerned more with science than with itself.