The production of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre is a tremendous achievement. It is a riveting look at the pivotal years leading up to a game-changing scientific breakthrough – the discovery of DNA, the genetic code to life itself – in the early 1950s. The account portrayed here is the overlooked one, the neglected aside that, it turns out, was the most important part of this scientific story all along: Rosalind Franklin (an outstanding Nicole Kidman), the brilliant scientist whose work in X-ray diffraction almost single-handedly led to the discovery of the helical structure of DNA as we understand it today.
Nicole Kidman immerses herself wholly in the role of Dr Franklin; a person who is cold and ‘difficult’, to use the frequent word choice of her co-worker Dr Maurice Wilkins, as well as splendidly sharp, daring and incredible. Franklin’s opening monologue recalls the moments of her childhood that incited her love of science – when, as a young girl, she would notice the endlessly fascinating patterns, the never-ending sequences of beauty that filled the world before her. A genius in her field of research, she was a scientist infatuated with understanding the minutest aspects of the world, yet incapable of fitting herself comfortably within it. Photograph 51 stresses the marginalisation that Dr Franklin faced throughout her career; being constantly at odds with those around her, not only for being intellectually superior to others, but for being a woman – and one, at that, who didn’t even fit the mould of what a female scientist was expected to look like.
Entombed in the dark, dismal, basement laboratory of King’s College, London, the play shows Dr Franklin and Dr Wilkins leading a team at the forefront of genetic research, using advanced photographic technology to glimpse an organism’s chemical make-up in its finest form. Photograph 51 is about more than this though; it concerns the rivalry that arose from the scientists’ Cambridge-based counterparts – Dr Crick and Dr Watson (performed fantastically with both glee and menace by Will Attenborough) – as well as the tensions between the two supposed King’s colleagues. The play splendidly captures the thrill of scientific exploration, the search for beauty and elegance in the universe, and the inelegance and fallibility of human interaction.
Photograph 51 succeeds at not aggrandising Dr Franklin’s qualities, or weighing the story too heavily down in a melodramatic consideration of her plight as a female scientist. Yes, she was a woman who failed at times to be listened to – who, while giving a conference on her latest groundbreaking research, was overtly ignored by members of her audience who preferred, instead, to criticise her appearance – but she also refused to hear the advice of others. The play suggests that it was Dr Franklin’s own inability to work well with others, her guardedness and distrust, that helped to condemn her to a prolonged period in the margins of history.
Anna Ziegler’s wonderfully written work speculates upon a ‘what if’ scenario: it ponders about where Dr Franklin’s life may have lead were she to have heeded advice from her assistant about the dangers of her scientific equipment – the laser that ultimately led to her death by ovarian cancer at the age of 37; what discoveries would have been achieved had Wilkins decided to hire Watson before the latter scientist went on to work with Dr Crick; what respect could have been garnered had Dr Franklin’s fellow scientists regarded her with less antagonism, less preconceived notions, and vice versa; and finally, as expressed in one of the play’s most emotionally charged moments, whether a missed opportunity at a staging of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale could have altered Franklin and Wilkins’ lives forever.
To go to the theatre is to see a story come to life on stage, and Photograph 51 is a life, an unfairly disregarded and too-short life, turned into a story. Using the staging of A Winter’s Tale that Dr Franklin watched to comment on the ‘forgettable’ actress who played Hermione compared to the magnificent performance of John Gielgud as Leontes, Anna Ziegler asks us to instead remember the scientist who achieved so much in such a limited time and under such imperfect conditions. Nicole Kidman shines in this role, and it’s no wonder that this play inspired the actress to return to the West End again after seventeen years. Simply wonderful.