19 October 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 824
By Anna Ziegler
Produced and directed by Michael Grandage
Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU
5 September-21 November 2015
Making her triumphant return to the London stage after 17 years, Nicole Kidman stars as Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose pioneering work led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. The play dramatises her life and work from the 1950s, when she returns to King's College London as one of the world's leading chemists and X-ray crystallographers.
The show centres on Franklin's trials and tribulations in a male-dominated field and the sexism she suffered from her male contemporaries. The central plot is the alleged 'stealing' of Franklin's work by Watson and Crick, who famously went on to publish their groundbreaking structure of DNA in Nature in 1953. Franklin took the clearest photograph of double helix – the eponymous Photograph 51.
The play dramatises the rivalry among the scientists involved in the quest to crack the structure of DNA. Jim Watson is portrayed as a misogynist who is hell bent on beating Franklin to the discovery. I must admit that I was disgracefully unaware of the significance of Franklin's work and the critical role she played. It must be said that on leaving the theatre, I was full of anger and resentment that her work had been stolen and she was under-appreciated . But, doing my due diligence, I researched this great rivalry, and came across Matt Cobb's Guardian article based on his book 'Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code'. He says that while Franklin's work was crucial to Watson and Crick's discovery, it was not stolen. However, Cobb adds that Franklin was unaware of how much of her work they relied upon.
Throughout the play I was reminded of the controversy of Sir Tim Hunt's comments on women in science. I was astonished to think that the comments made to Franklin back then are still prevalent within science today. But, on reflection, we have moved on somewhat as Sir Tim's comments were denounced and led to the hilarious #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign. But, in a society where one-third of schoolgirls think they are not smart enough to become a scientist, there is clearly still a problem.
Nicole Kidman perfectly navigates the stage, portraying the elegant but guarded Franklin. She manages to emanate an aura of independence, determination and single-mindedness. The rest of the cast also give great performances and act as a perfect chorus of narrators but – much like Franklin herself – Kidman is very much a soloist and deserves her standing ovations.
The staging and direction of the performance is exquisite, something one has come to expect from Michael Grandage. The set is a gothic basement lab, dark and historic, contrasted with contemporary bright LED floor lighting.
Anna Ziegler shines a light on the contribution of Franklin, who had no recognition of her work before her death from ovarian cancer. Unlike Watson and Crick, she did not become a household name for her groundbreaking work on the structure of DNA, although there can be no doubt she contributed significantly.
So, while I begin a one-man campaign for a posthumous Nobel Prize for Franklin, you must beg, steal or borrow to get your hands on a ticket to see this play, which is on at the Noël Coward Theatre until 21 November 2015.
Buy Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code from Amazon UK.