by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Michael Grandage
Designed by Christopher Oram
Lighting by Neil Austin
The Michael Grandage Company
The Noel Coward Theatre, London
Thursday 23rd October 2015, 19.30
Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin
Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins
Will Attenborough as James Watson
Edward Bennett as Francis Crick
Patrick Kennedy as Don Caspar
Ray Gosling as Joshua Silver
Nicole Kidman as Dr Rosalind Franklin
Photograph 51 is the story of the discovery of DNA, and how Frances Crick and James Watson of Cambridge University and Maurice Wilkins of Kings College, London got the Nobel Prize and acclaim, and how the vital role of Dr Rosalind Franklin at Kings College was ignored by history. It was her photo of the double helix, Photograph 51, that led to their breakthrough.
We saw The Winter’s Tale in the Kenneth Branagh Company Season on Wednesday and Photograph 51 directed by Michael Grandage on Thursday. There are all sorts of connections. The Branagh Company season is the successor to the two Grandage Company seasons, bringing star productions into the West End. The programme suggests this is part of a continuum with the last season. Both The Winter’s Tale and Photograph 51 are designed by Christopher Oram, and lit by Neil Austin … like most of the Grandage Season. The Garrick Theatre and the Noel Coward Theatre are a two minute walk apart. Both are old West End theatres.
At the beginning and end of Photograph 51, Franklin and Wilkins discuss the 1951 Peter Brooks production of The Winter’s Tale, where John Gielgud played Leontes, as Branagh is doing just round the corner while this is running. Tellingly, underlining the sexism theme of Photograph 51, they cannot remember who played Hermione. As we had seen The Winter’s Tale the day before it became a talking point afterwards, especially Rosalind Franklin’s opinion that Hermione did not come back to life at all, it was just a story, a happy fantasy for Leontes. However, I also think expecting the audience to be acquainted with The Winter’s Tale enough to get the references, is somewhere between optimistic and pretentious on the playwright’s part. Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet … I wouldn’t stretch it further.
The set: Wilkins and Franklin foreground
Oram’s set was based on the basement of King’s College, which had been bombed out in the war and full of rubble. This is where the actual lab was. Three floors of Kings College appear above in strict classical lines. The pillars in the basement flow into rubble as if softly organic. The floor of the stage is white lighted panels, which can be switched on singly or in groups.
Reviews of Photograph 51 all seem to mention Nicole Kidman’s last very sexy stage appearance seventeen years ago. Then they note the contrast with Kidman in pulled back hair, plain frock and sensible shoes. Then they inevitably say “You’d think a play about the discovery of DNA would be boring BUT …'” I’m going to change that BUT to AND. “You’d think a play about the discovery of DNA would be boring, AND unfortunately it is.”
This is (at least) the ninth Grandage directed play I’ve seen. Seven have been truly memorable and brilliant productions. He has a tremendous stylistic range from Privates on Parade to the Jude Law Henry V. One play, Peter and Alice, was static and dull. Stylistically, this is like Peter and Alice. Sub-Brechtian storytelling, with characters addressing the audience more often than addressing each other. Reporting what they did instead of doing it. Nothing much to see either. When they’re not speaking they retire into three arches at the back, like sentry boxes. It would work just as well as a radio play. The lit white floor squares in Photograph 51 replace the chess board stage in Peter and Alice, and I thought the panels accentuated the disconnected nature and lack of interaction inherent in the script.
The white panels light up in various patterns. L to R: Don Caspar, Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick, Ray Gosling, James Watson (concealed) Maurice Wilkins
The two plays are stylistically similar, except this doesn’t have the set changes nor the dramatic reports on World War One, though this is definitely the better of the two. In both cases, you have premier league actors. Peter & Alice had Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench (another link to the current Branagh The Winter’s Tale) and this has Nicole Kidman and Edward Bennett. I’m not criticizing the acting at all. It’s the intrinsic type of narrative play. The strength of the acting carried it through, and the direction made all those lines to the front work as well as anyone could, with finely orchestrated switches between lines, but the play is indeed the thing, and I have never liked this sort of straight historical narrative.
The actual “Photograph 51 moment”
The revelation was Kidman’s acting, which shone despite the play. She was believable and realistic as the isolated, socially inept Dr Franklin. She also looked perfect. Neat, subdued but ever prickly over the Miss and Dr and first name etiquette. As the programme explains, Franklin did all the hard work, but failed to make the intuitive or imaginative leap that Watson did. Probably she wasn’t a team player. Her assistant (who took the actual photo) was Ray Gosling who intervenes to keep the plot moving. James Watson, played by Will Attenborough, is a chancer, but also a quick thinker. Kidman was surrounded by the seven men on stage, portraying an era when women academics were not allowed in the Senior Common Room at London University. The leading male role was Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, her boss / colleague at Kings College, who was also very good, and eventually finds himself drawn to her. But both are too absorbed in science.
American academic Don Caspar invites Dr Franklin to dinner
It’s a Grandage play. So all the performances were excellent within the genre. That’s a given. We were delighted to see Edward Bennett, whose role in The Rehearsal at Chichester is so far, our “best performance of 2015” following his role in the RSC’s Love’s Labours Lost / Love’s Labours Won as our “Best of 2014.” Edward Bennett got humour here, but he could get humour from the phone book. We thought he was seriously under-employed as Francis Crick, a pleasant enough affable part, it’s true. Yes, I know there are “no small parts” but even so … One of the memorable bits of the play was at the end, when Crick says his wife had gradually moved to the guestroom and he hadn’t noticed. Yes, that’s how interactive these great scientists were. They seem to have been dull people. They don’t make for good drama. While the set was wonderful to behold, anything in this play could have been done on a very plain set. Oram’s magnificent design overwhelmed the content for me … looking in its dusty blacks like The Land of Mordoz-Uzgy in the newest teen fantasy game.
The critics liked it very much indeed. I’d guess they were not sitting in the cramped circle. It had four star reviews from Michael Billington in The Guardian, Domenic Cavendish in the Telegraph, Quentin Letts in the Mail. The dissenter was Susannah Clapp in the Observer with three stars. Grudgingly I would agree on three stars. My immediate post theatre reaction was two, but it did set us thinking and discussing, and the acting was fine, as was the direction – for this sort of play. It is the sort of play that is my problem.
The programme was very good, and on reading it afterwards, the essays shed more light on the story than the play did. The biographical essay on Rosalind Franklin explained much. Oddly, what no one said, and which should be in the script, is that she spent her life taking X-rays, at bench level, and died of ovarian cancer … at bench level. As my dentist has explained, X-rays today are a tiny fraction in strength of what they were in the 1950s with crude equipment. Then Christopher Oram justified his elaborate design with the classical upper levels of Kings College representing a classical male world. Nicole Kidman was interviewed about the role. It covered three important areas, and also had an essay on old cramped West End theatres saying that in spite of the discomfort actors and audiences liked them. Actors, I don’t know. Audiences … NO!!!!
We have been to the Noel Coward Theatre many times. The stalls seats are OK, not good, but OK. We should have remembered that upstairs, especially in the middle of the row is chronically cramped to a degree which would shame a budget airline. I’m six foot one and was trapped tight in the Royal Circle unable to move my legs. I could see taller people ahead of me squirming throughout. The essay in the programme explains the need for less cramped seating in these old theatres. I’ll add a thought. It’s very hard to do this in the balconies because the terracing fixes the leg room. The only way is like cars … they have gone higher to create more leg room. They’d have to put in new higher seats and make no attempt to recreate the look of the old ones.
It’s played at 90 minutes with no interval. That was another issue … we had an email the day before to announce that. It was annoying because we had already booked a no refund overnight hotel, assuming that like (say) The Winter’s Tale the night before, it would end around 10.30. If we’d known it was a 9 o’clock ending, we would have easily made the last direct 9.45 train home, or driven in the first place. So really unhappy customers in two ways. My five foot companion felt the same about the intrinsic play, and was also sometimes bored, so I don’t think pain has affected my end judgment. The Theatre Royal Bath labels its problem seats with Restricted Leg Room when you book. The RSC marks Restricted View. The Noel Coward should do the same.
Much is made of the cheap seats for the Grandage season as an act of theatrical philanthropy to be applauded -25% on the day at £10. Of course it is, but wasn’t it always thus? As a student I got standing tickets at the back very cheaply. Surely the cheap seats are subsidized by more expensive than normal seats elsewhere? Again, nothing wrong with that. It was cheaper for us than the extremely high-priced “The Winter’s Tale” but it cost more per minute of running time, with a cast of just six, rather than a cast of more than twenty. These celebrity Hollywood star plays always seem to prove that movie stars can easily hold their own on stage, but they also fall into an American theatre mindset (the writer is American, as was the writer of Peter & Alice): as small a cast as possible, as high a ticket price as possible. Like American Buffalo earlier in the year with John Goodman and Damian Lewis, it was ultimately disappointing.
British theatre had three of its greatest male actors playing in a 400 yard radius in Covent Garden tonight … Branagh in The Winter’s Tale, Mark Rylance in Farinelli & The King and Edward Bennett here. Add Judi Dench and Nicole Kidman. It is a golden month.
See THE WINTER’S TALE (when posted) for more on why these old West End proscenium gilt trimmed theatres are not fit for purpose.