For every five articles written about Photograph 51—a play by Anna Ziegler which opened in London’s West End last month—four will reliably begin with a mention of its star Nicole Kidman, whose last stage appearance 17 years ago (in David Hare’s The Blue Room) was memorialized as “pure theatrical Viagra” due to a brief, dimly-lit nude scene. It is perhaps fitting then that the heroine of Ziegler’s play—English scientist Rosalind Franklin whose research was instrumental in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure—gets little mention in press coverage of the play, just as her work went mostly unrecognized during her lifetime. But if you are fortunate enough to attend this remarkable new production directed by Michael Grandage, you will see Franklin, who is played by Kidman, shine. And the story of her life—as a proud Jewish woman—will be all the more inspiring for its triumphs, even though Franklin herself did not live long enough to reap the glory.
Kidman almost never leaves the stage throughout the play’s 95 minutes. In fact, she is the only woman in the play, much as Rosalind Franklin, in her work at London’s King’s College, operated in an academic milieu dominated by men. Midway through the play, Franklin meets the American post-doctoral student Donald Caspar, with whom she’d exchanged letters. Kidman portrays Franklin as curt and distant to a fault, but she warms to Caspar almost immediately.
Caspar: That’s funny. I imagined you differently.
Rosalind: How did you imagine me?
Caspar: Oh, just fairer maybe. Blonde.
Rosalind: You thought I was blonde?
Caspar: I don’t know. Yes.
Rosalind: You knew I was Jewish, though?
Caspar: Yes. So am I.
Rosalind: That will make two of us at King’s.
Kidman pours her soul into her performance—during a long curtain call at a recent Wednesday matinee, she was unsuccessfully fighting back tears. And though Photograph 51 may be promoted chiefly as a star vehicle, it works best as a tribute to Franklin. This focus—on Franklin’s accomplishments—is a testament to the talent of its playwright, Anna Ziegler. I was curious to learn how Ziegler’s own research into the play’s subject matter informed her depiction of Rosalind Franklin and her surroundings, particularly along gender and religious lines, and the play’s themes of exclusion. In an email, Ziegler wrote:
“There isn’t any kind of official documentation that Franklin’s gender played a role in her professional career. Neither is there any documentation that her religion played a role. But we can be certain that, to some extent, both did. Both were ways in which she was different from those around her, and made her alien. There’s no denying the fact that people are drawn to those who resemble themselves, even if not consciously, and that Rosalind’s Jewishness would have contributed to her exclusion from the ‘club’ at King’s College. Also, the culture of casual anti-Semitism that existed in Britain at the time would have almost certainly made someone like Rosalind even more prickly.”
Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 when she was only 38, just six years after she and a colleague developed the X-ray image the play is named for (Photograph 51), and which became—under controversial circumstances detailed both in the play and elsewhere—the basis for the groundbreaking DNA model developed by a group of researchers at Cambridge University, with Franklin’s work going largely uncredited. The Cambridge group would go on to win the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which many believe Franklin would have shared were she to have been alive then, or if posthumous nominations were permitted.
Ziegler, who is also Jewish, wrote Photograph 51 on commission some years ago, and it has since had several regional productions. Rosalind Franklin’s Jewish identity, said Ziegler, was a draw for her. “It was a point of similarity between us when we have very little else in common (I never liked math or science; I am not fiercely independent or particularly strong-willed!),” she told me. In the play, Franklin is staunchly secular, but with a strong sense of wonder. “I found inspiration in the idea that even a secular scientist might feel he or she was experiencing the divine when confronted with the beauty of nature or scientific discovery,” Ziegler wrote. “Science and religion came to me late in the process as a pairing that the play ought to engage, as the story is so much about things coexisting that should, by rights, negate each other, and the fact that the world is built upon these contradictions.”
Photograph 51 runs through November 21 at the Noël Coward Theater in London.
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