After a launch season that comprised five productions stretched over a year at the Noel Coward Theatre — and saw some 100,000 seats sold at £10 — the Michael Grandage Company returns to the same address with a stand-alone project of just one play that will run for just 11 weeks. But it continues the company’s mission to make theatre accessible, with 25% of the house again being sold for £10.
And it also boldly and fearlessly goes, as the previous season’s Peter and Alice did, to bring a new play to the West End stage that reimagines a real-life historical event, in this case scientific instead of literary, and puts flesh — as well as heart and feeling — on the raw wounds of history.
John Logan’s Peter and Alice was about real-life characters who had been fictionalised as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland respectively to live in the shadow of their own legends. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, first developed in California and then premiered in Maryland in 2008 before being produced at Off-Broadway’s Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2010, alights on an utterly compelling story of scientific discovery, as rival scientists at King’s College, London and in Cambridge race to make the biggest discovery of the 1950s, the source of DNA.
It’s a dense subject for a play, and I can’t say that I honestly understood all the science presented. As with life itself, you have to take a lot of it on trust. But the play is actually partly about a powerful sense of distrust — and of bad faith — as the male scientists claim as their own the big discovery of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose photography — and in particular, Photograph 51 — revealed the helical structure of DNA, and built their own models out of it. Three of them – Wilkins at King’s, and Watson and Crick at Cambridge — would go on to share the Nobel prize for their science; Franklin, who recklessly exposed herself to the rays of the X-ray machines, would develop tumours and die, aged just 37, of ovarian cancer, without her own contribution being recognised.
So, in an intricately layered series of revelations, it becomes several plays all at once: a thriller about a race of discovery; an exposé about sexism in science (still prevalent today, as witness the recent furore over UCL professor Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign over remarks that single sex labs were better because when you criticise female scientists they cry); and a treatise about loneliness, as these scientists studiously avoid relationships that might interfere with their work.
As with previous Grandage projects, the play is led by a star actor — in this case Nicole Kidman, returning to the London stage for the first time in some 17 years since her sensational 1998 debut in The Blue Room. Here she doesn’t strip physically, as she famously did then, but the emotional layers are gradually exposed no less revealingly. She is surrounded by a brilliant team of male actors that include Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, her colleague and adversary whom the play suggests harboured deeper feelings towards her than he let on.
The result is a beautiful, tender and surprising new play that elevates the West End.