Tuesday, 10 November 2015

03 November, 2015 Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martins Lane *****

This true(ish) story of ambition and skulduggery in the world of competitive science, owes much in its construction to Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Writer Anna Ziegler puts forward the premise that, in the race to be first to construct a model of the double heliacal structure of DNA (and the inevitable accompanying Nobel Prize), Crick and Watson used decidedly devious and underhand tactics to claim the glory for Cambridge at the expense of Kings College, London; and that whilst the Head of the team at Kings, Maurice Wilkins was rather belatedly given some public recognition for what in retrospect can be seen as a team effort, the person whose expertise in X ray photography enabled the vital breakthrough which set all this frenetic activity in motion was totally forgotten. Why? Because she was a woman.

From the evidence of this play, it is fair to say that Rosalind Franklin was not an instantly likeable character. She was an intensely driven, uncompromising, obsessional perfectionist who did not suffer fools gladly. Furthermore, in a milieu which was essentially about teamwork, she was not a team player. Today, we might suspect that there were autistic characteristics to her personality, particularly in her inability to exhibit warmth or empathy or to establish more than working relationships with her peers. The play centres around the fulcrum of this interesting balance:  was the lack of recognition a result of her dysfunctional personality or distinctly misogynistic attitudes in post-war science and society in general? And, more importantly perhaps, have the latter entirely gone away?

And so to Nicole Kidman and her return to the West End stage eighteen years after her sensational performance in David Hare’s The Blue Room at the Donmar. Her iconic status and prodigious output in the movie business is always going to put bums on seats, but the questions remain: is she a serious stage actor and does she do justice to the role. The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

The highly respected American critic Roger Ebert wrote this about Ms Kidman some years ago (although I don’t know exactly when):

“She seems to be two people: the glamorous star of Moulin Rouge and Nine and the risky daring actress in Birth, The Hours and Eyes Wide Shut…celebrity has clouded her image; if she were less glamourous, she would be more praised. Age will only be an asset to her.”

The edginess and willingness to take risks have always been there. She will take a punt at anything she regards as interesting or slightly left field. A quick glance at her filmography on IDMB will show that there have been misjudgements; but there has also been work of substance, The Hours of course, and one of my favourite movies, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. This performance assuages any doubt about her credentials as a first class stage actor.  Like all great actors she has tremendous presence. Before she has even spoken she has grabbed our attention and for the next ninety-eight minutes (there is no interval) she does not let go. This is an ensemble production where the cast (the rest of whom are all male) do not leave the stage, and it is fair to say that there are never more than a few moments rest for Ms Kidman. There is a moment towards the end of the play when Rosalind receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Barely perceptibly, and without a word being said, her whole face and demeanour wilts before us. The atmosphere in the theatre was almost palpable.

The whole feel of this piece is monochromatic from the dark, almost black lowering set representing the vaults of Kings College and the Palladian architecture above it to the white lab coats and grey flannels, and Rosalind’s dress which is understated and prim without being shabby or maiden aunt; and of course those all-important X-ray photographs. Ms Kidman’s understated performance is subtle and nuanced and drives the piece along giving the excellent supporting cast plenty to work with. Stephen Campbell Moore does a good job shifting between petulance and hubris as Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin’s long-suffering boss and chief sparring partner. Will Attenborough and Edward Bennett as Watson and Crick come across as perhaps little bit too vaudevillian for my taste; but Patrick Kennedy who plays Don Caspar, the quiet American who recognises Franklin’s worth very early on as a student and remains her greatest ally, does so with great skill. His voice of reason and compassion in the febrile world of competitive science is a quietly accomplished piece of acting.

All hail to Michael Grandage for delivering yet another coup de théâtre in the West End.

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