Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Photo: Johan Persson
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a British crystallographer who, in a laboratory at King’s College in London, was able to capture the key to DNA on an x-ray. This led directly to the discovery of the double helix and, ultimately, a Nobel Prize. But not for Franklin; it seems that the telltale x-ray (“Photograph 51”) was more or less pilfered by Franklin’s research partner Maurice Wilkins. He ultimately shared the Nobel with James Watson and Francis Crick, while the contribution of Franklin–who by that point had died of ovarian cancer–was more or less left in the dust.
The second-biggest surprise of Anna Ziegler’s new play, Photograph 51, is that Ziegler has managed to take this drily historic tale and turn it into an engrossing scientific whodunit, or rather who’lldoit. Ziegler is an American playwright, whose A Delicate Ship was well-received in August in an off-Broadway production by the Playwrights Realm. In Photograph 51–produced and directed by Michael Grandage, of Frost/Nixon and Red–the drama more or less bristles.
Franklin’s failing, in Ziegler’s telling, was not so much that she was Jewish and she was a woman, but that she didn’t play well with others; said others being white male Christians who see no impropriety in taking the fruits of her labor and would think nothing of sending her to the back of the lab to make a pot of tea.
The biggest surprise in Photograph 51, though, is the performance of Nicole Kidman as the fair Rosalind. Kidman has had an impressive film career, including a 2003 Oscar for “The Hours,” but I–not having seen her on stage (and, literally, in the flesh) since David Hare’s overhyped but underwhelming Blue Room in 1998–was not prepared for the Kidman now on the stage of the Noël Coward. She carries the play, seemingly effortlessly; Rosalind–as drawn by Ziegler–stands out as the victor in a world of men, and Kidman does the same. We never, for a moment, doubt the character’s strength; and Kidman’s great strength in Photograph 51 is that we see and believe in Franklin all through without the distraction that can intrude when–in mid-performance–the folks in the audience remember that that’s a movie star up there.
Grandage’s compelling work is no surprise, nor are the contributions of his frequent designer Christopher Oram (of Frost/Nixon, Red and Wolf Hall). Stephen Campbell Moore makes a perfect foil as Rosalind’s lab partner Wilkins, with amusing turns by Will Attenborough as Watson (with upstanding hair that looks like it was permanently jolted over in the electrics lab) and Patrick Kennedy (as a young colleague from America). But it’s Kidman who brings life to Ziegler’s Photograph 51.. . . Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King. Photo: Simon Annand
Another electric performance is on view down the block at the Duke of York’s. No present-day theatergoer will be surprised by this; given that it’s Mark Rylance on the boards, the surprise would be if the performance were not
Renaissance music expert Claire van Kampen might not be familiar by name, although anyone who attended Rylance’s 2013 Twelfth Night/Richard III at the Belasco will attest to her abilities as composer and musical director. She is a long-time artistic associate of Rylance, and wife as well. Her musical interests no doubt brought her attention to the strange tale of King Philippe V of Spain–grandson of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France–and the internationally-famous Italian castrato, Farinelli (Carlo Broschi). In 1737, Farinelli visited the court of the bipolar Philippe, and his golden voice seemed to lift the King out of his depression. So much so, that the singer spent an extended period with Philippe in Madrid and the Spanish countryside.
Van Kampen has turned the tale into a full-scale drama, loaded with selections by Handel. In Philippe–who begins the action infirmly sprawled on his bed, fishing for goldfish in a fishbowl–she has contrived a perfect role for Rylance. He is well matched by Sam Crane as Farinelli and Melody Grove as Philippe’s Queen Isabella. The three stars are joined by Iestyn Davies, who sings the role of Farinelli. Van Kampen and Dove simply have him stand onstage beside Crane, in identical costume, and sing like a falsetto canary–and this works extremely well. Iestyn Davies, Mark Rylance and Sam Crane in Farinelli and the King.
Photo: Simon Annand
At times, the triangle and all that music make us think that van Kampen was somehow thinking–consciously or un–of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus
. There are also moments, I’m afraid, where you might feel maybe you’d rather be watching Rylance in
Even so, van Kampen and Rylance have given us a juicy, bounteously musical evening. John Dove has directed the production, which originated at Shakespeare’s Globe, and it is sumptuously designed by Jonathan Fensom. The musicians adorn a balcony overlooking the action; a couple dozen ticketbuyers are seated in onstage boxes; and the action spills out into the auditorium. There is also an arresting sequence in which the singing Farinelli flies, in this historic playhouse which hosted the original 1904 production of Peter Pan.
. Photograph 51, by Anna Ziegler, opened September 14, 2015 and continues through November 21 at the Noël Coward Theatre. Farinelli and the King, by Claire van Kampen, opened September 29, 2015 and continues through December 5 at the Duke of York’s Theatre
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