Anna Ziegler's play 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 in the early 50s to make the biggest discovery of the age — the source of DNA.
Kidman plays Rosalind Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer whose photography — and in particular, Photograph 51 that gives the play its title — revealed the helical structure of DNA. But it was three other male scientists who would win the Nobel Prize for this discovery, while Franklin — who died at the age of just 37, after developing ovarian cancer thought to have been related to her exposure to the radiation of the X-rays — never had her contribution officially recognized.
All of this had a very keen personal dimension to Kidman. "My father was a biochemist," she explained one recent lunchtime in the bar of the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, two days after she met a London theatre audience again for the first time in over 17 years. "I'd go to the laboratory where he worked with my sister, and we'd be given test tubes and microscopes to play with to keep us entertained until he was finished. We'd go and pick up my mum and get fish and chips for dinner!"
Her father, who also studied psychology, died a year ago Sept. 12, and she felt his presence as she did the play a year later: "This is my way of acknowledging him, and also the people in science who go quietly about their work and go unacknowledged a lot of the time. So it's a beautiful thing to be given, and he knew I was going to be doing it. I like to think he's somewhere offering support."
Just as Franklin exposed herself to the X-ray beams of the her photography, Kidman has now exposed herself to the X-ray beams of the critics. They've fortunately been hugely favourable. In a review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley stated, "Ms. Kidman has seldom been better cast than as this intimidating figure. Among movie stars of her generation, she stands out for the relentless determination she projects; she seduces audiences not by charm but by concentration. And her best screen performances (as the homicidal television reporter in 'To Die For,' the protective mother in 'The Others,' even Virginia Woolf in 'The Hours,' for which she won an Oscar) have emanated a sense of a laser-focused ambition. Photograph 51 allows her to capitalize on this persona to enlightening and unexpectedly poignant effect…. Ms. Kidman, who turns Franklin's guardedness into as much a revelation as a concealment of character, is pretty close to perfection."
Similarly, the Guardian Michael Billington wrote about how she "conveys the ecstasy of scientific discovery: her features acquire a luminous intensity as she stares at the photograph that reveals the helix pattern. It is a fine performance in which Kidman reminds us that the scientific life can be informed by private passion." In the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish said, "Kidman displays once again the power to hold us in thrall. Although her kit is 50s demure, the caboodle of her nuanced performance is the stuff of intoxication ... By turns icily impatient and glowering, but thawing too for telling moments, Kidman brilliantly suggests an intelligent woman compacted of porcelain and steel."
If one (male) critic, who reviewed her last London stage appearance in The Blue Room 17 years ago in which she briefly appeared nude, dubbed that "pure theatrical Viagra," the new chief critic of the London Times, Ann Treneman, described this play now as "pure theatrical DNA."
Kidman herself knows that there's still a way to go in terms of sexual equality in many walks of life, including science — a University College London science professor called Tim Hunt was recently forced to resign over remarks that single-sex labs were better because when female scientists were criticized, they cried. "That's part of the reason to do this play, to put a spotlight on that — but even deeper is that someone who contributes on a high level, be they male or female, can be overlooked if they're not extrovert enough. Here was this quiet, methodical, brilliant person, contributing quietly — and the basis of this play is acknowledging and championing that. She went unacknowledged, and that's such a shame and an injustice. It's not right."
But Kidman knows that one group she wants to acknowledge specifically is the audience. "I'm so grateful that they come. You go out there, and you think everyone is against us! But actually, they're all there because they want to be there and see a play. That's really beautiful!"
Facing the live audience for the first time in 17 years wasn't easy: "The nerves get more as you get older... I'd love to say that they get less, but they don't. My heart was pounding. That rush of adrenaline is an extreme feeling! But getting out on stage was the big thing. Once I was out there, it was unbelievable. First, because I believe in the play and the actors, and that's so much of what theatre is — you have to believe in what you're doing, and once you trust that, everything else falls into place. But secondly, I haven't had that immediacy with an audience for a long time, and not having had it for so long is like being starved. Suddenly I was out there, and oh my gosh, the desire to give to the audience and for them to give to us was really special and emotional."
She's delighted to have come back to London to do so: "My memory of being here was so good. I feel very home at here. Being Australian, I have a link to this country already, but then having done The Blue Room here, I knew a lot of the theatre community here. And then I thought, 'If I don't do it now, I'll never do it.' I had to really push myself to do it. I told my mother I was scared, and she said, 'So what? You've been scared before!' She pushed me to a different place. It would have been easy to stay at home in Nashville and read reviews of somebody else doing this play, but I wanted to push myself and support the theatre."
What about the fact that she's another Hollywood star taking on the West End? "I don't see myself that way. I'm just an actor coming and trying to do something and hoping it will work."
The reviews prove that it has. Her director Michael Grandage ends by confirming something else: "She's a total company player! That's the thing about the theatre: We all get on with it together, there aren't any star trailers around the back. But the best thing for me is that thanks to her involvement with this play, it will now be seen by a lot of people, and that's fantastic."
Photograph 51 is running at the Noel Coward Theatre to Nov. 21. Box Office: 0844 482 5141, or visit delfontmackintosh.co.uk/Tickets/Photograph51/Photograph51.asp. For further details on the company, visit michaelgrandagecompany.com.