Rosalind Franklin should be a feminist icon

15 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Almost two decades after her West End debut, Nicole Kidman returnsBut her controlled portrayal of scientist Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51 – a play that highlights the crucial role played by Franklin in identifying the structure of DNA – has failed to impress all critics, with the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts questioning her detached performance. Almost two decades after her first appearance on the London stage provoked one critic to describe her performance as “pure theatrical Viagra”, Nicole Kidman’s return to the West End has been hailed “a triumph”. In the years since, she has garnered critical acclaim in a series of leading roles on film, earning Oscar nominations for three – Moulin Rouge! and Rabbit Hole – and taking home the gong for The Hours. Referring to the paper’s then theatre critic Charles Spencer’s description of the Australian actress in glowing terms, The Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish says Kidman’s role is different to “the sexually charged carousel of characters she paraded before Donmar audiences all those years ago”, but no less enthralling. “Kidman displays once again the power to hold us in thrall.

Although we’re almost a generation on, and she has starred in a huge number of films since then, the question inevitably arises at her return: can she still dispense an invigorating dose of PTV? It’s a commanding, intelligent performance and my only complaint about Anna Ziegler’s intriguing, informative 95-minute play is that it is not longer. She’s incarnating the pioneering British Jewish chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin who, in American playwright’s Anna Ziegler’s unflattering fictionalised portrait, is a hard-as-nails, suffer-no-fools blue-stocking. Kidman plays Franklin, the socially awkward X-ray crystallographer whose research helped Francis Crick, James Watson and the lesser-known Maurice Wilkins win a Nobel prize. Marginalised during her research in the 1950s, ostracised by male peers and ultimately overlooked by the establishment, Franklin’s data was used without her permission and her contribution to science was drastically under-acknowledged.

But the play, by Anna Zeigler and performed at the Noel Coward Theatre, “strives too strenuously for a theme of victimhood”, according to the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, who is not entirely impressed by Kidman. Reacting with understandable hostility to the news that she is expected to assist the molecular biologist, Maurice Wilkins, in his work on x-ray crystallography, Franklin increasingly retreats into her own world. But do we weep at Franklin’s fate? ‘When, in a passage near the end, she talks of her desire to be kissed, does it chime with the way Miss Kidman has played her? This brilliant X-ray scientist could have been a little more transparent, showing a little more flesh and blood.’ The Hollywood Reporter shared Letts’ view that Ziegler’s play is a ‘little stark’, calling it a ‘blend of straight bio-drama and high-school science lesson’. Kidman bridles at the routine sexism of academic life, rejects Wilkins’s cack-handed attempts to win her over and looks nervously away when a sympathetic American colleague invites her to dinner.

The title refers to the single X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA which, taken at King’s College London in 1952 under Franklin’s aegis (albeit by her PhD student assistant Raymond Gosling), revealed its double-helix nature. But Kidman also conveys the ecstasy of scientific discovery: her features acquire a luminous intensity as she stares at the photograph that reveals the helix pattern. It was the American James Watson, busily collaborating with Francis Crick at Cambridge on building a model based on available data, who immediately saw the photo’s significance. Were the play (first staged in New York) simply to assert that Franklin was robbed of the prestige that was rightly hers – Watson and Crick were credited as co-discoverers, and she died in 1958, four years before the pair (and Wilkins too) received the Nobel Prize – it would serve a valid but rather worthy purpose. Although it’s not in the play, Franklin posted a notice in the King’s physics department, even after she had uncovered the photographic evidence, saying that “It is with great regret that we have to announce the death, on Friday 18th July 1952, of DNA helix.” What prompted that?

Casual chauvinism abounds – when Stephen Campbell Moore’s bluff, tweedy Wilkins first meets her, she bristles at his familiarity, his assumed superiority, and thoughtless decision to head off to the men-only common room for lunch. And, although a visit to Peter Brook’s production of The Winter’s Tale in the summer of 1951 is integral to the action, we never learn anything of Franklin’s tastes in music and literature. By turns icily impatient and glowering, but thawing too for telling moments, Kidman brilliantly suggests an intelligent woman compacted of porcelain and steel. Michael Grandage’s production – for which 25% of seats are available at £10 on the day – matches the text in swiftness and clarity and is beautifully designed by Christopher Oram: the set hints at the grimy classical grandeur of the King’s College quad and the rubble of the bomb-afflicted postwar London. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think of a disgruntled Wilkins suddenly having to share his team, equipment and research with Franklin.

Her isolationism prevents her from bonding with her peers, giving their rivals their crucial advantage: is that because of society, her father (who instilled a belief in the need for absolute certainty), or something in her nature? Edward Bennett and Will Attenborough make Crick and Watson a genuine odd couple: the former all tweedy jocularity and the latter brimming with precocious certainty under a shock of wayward hair. Even if the play could go still further, it proves that science is inherently dramatic and that the neglect of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to uncovering the secret of life remains a blot on our history. Although the supporting male performances suffer from scantily written roles, Grandage directs it all with characteristically fluid aplomb, placing the action (sometimes using neat, quasi-scientific symmetries) amid a towering set by Christopher Oram that evokes the bombed-out Palladian magnificence of King’s, piles of rubble lapping at arches.

Neither scientist explicitly told Franklin they were using her research, and they later argued it hadn’t been stolen – although others dispute this. Using more of Franklin’s research they were finally able to correct the errors and were successful in uncovering the now familiar double-helix structure.

Her sister later said that Franklin had no idea how significant her contribution had been and would have ‘exploded with fury’ is she’d known how much they’d relied on her work. In 1970, the famous scientist Kathleen Lonsdale gave a talk on “Women in Science” at the Royal Institution, where I have worked on the Christmas lectures. She argued that, although the number of female scientists had increased, this was not reflected by the number of women leading departments or research.

It’s easy to see why she has become the iconic overlooked female scientist (for she is far from the only one – think Lisa Meitner who discovered nuclear fission or Ada Lovelace who wrote the first computer programme in the 19th century).

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