joi, 29 octombrie 2015

The Play's NOT the Thing

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, 05.09-21.11.2015, Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, London

What I could gather before going to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 was that it is a story of a woman scientist who was robbed of her Nobel prize by people who stole her work, that different people think different things about what actually happened and that the play is not necessarily very true to life.

After seeing the play I'll add to that the bits of biographical information about Rosalind Franklin included in the program and in her short article on Wikipedia. And my take on the facts is this: Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant scientist but not necessarily the most pleasant or easy to deal with of human beings. Being a woman and Jewish is not the most pleasant position to be in in the wake of the Holocaust in a highly competitive, male dominated environment. Add 'sexually repressed' to the aforementioned and we have more than enough for a terrible individual drama. It is a drama consumed entirely in the unseen latency of Rosalind Franklin's personality, in the vast loneliness behind the mask of a hard-ass, impossible to please, annoying bitch. And unfortunately it will continue to have Franklin's psyche as its only host for a while still, as Anna Ziegler chose to approach the subject matter from the perspective of her heroine's scientific career rather than the biographical angle.

The whole play takes place in labs and research centers and the script is laden with scientific terminology which does not render it incomprehensible, but boring at points. I must confess, although I enjoyed the play, I am not the biggest fan of Ziegler's script and I think she made a couple of wrong choices, the first of which I already mentioned. To my mind, Franklin's own demons would have made for a much better story than a picture that has been used without her explicit approval. It would have made more sense, too, as the emotional connection between Ziegler and Franklin hails undoubtedly from both of them being Jewish, women and having to struggle to succeed in environments that aren't necessarily very accommodating.

Perhaps Ziegler was afraid to stray too far from the truth and thus insult the memory of Rosalind Franklin. To this I say a degree of speculation is inherent in any artistic work and as long as the main thesis is in line with the facts, there is no need for all the details to be. In fact, there might be a lot more questionable aspects in the present version of the script than it would have been if the choice was to tell the story of the woman rather than that of the scientist.

The play has a documentary feel - mostly understandable - and the writing is all very factual, the plot hardly ever leaving the lab (except for a passing episode of Franklin (Nicole Kidman) going to see a play which might steam more from playwrights' obsession with self references rather than from some sort of biographical relevance). Franklin's correspondence with Caspar (Patrick Kennedy) is included in the script as is and delivered as monologues. Again, I would have chosen to use a bit more stagecraft, to turn them into dialogues and maybe use them to steer the play one way or the other. Same goes for the (admittedly short) soliloquies of Franklin's assistant Gosling (Joshua Silver) that carry the action forward. Integrating them into dialogue would have enhanced the dramatic feel imho.

And lastly, I do not believe Franklin either cared about or was robbed of the Nobel prize. Hers was a very personal odyssey that hardly lends itself to the understanding of the public. Franklin cared about getting the most accurate experimental results and that's that. Even her approach to the very idea of science is wrong, for science is not the exact description of the facts but rather the best possible explanation of the facts. And fallibility - the possibility of being proven wrong - is a condition sine qua non of scientific theories. And by a shift of paradigm two theories can describe the same set of facts with whole different sets of instruments. Although, in fairness to Franklin, she died before both Kuhn and Popper published their studies on the philosophy of science.

In the way of accuracy of results, Franklin must've died content of her achievements, and rightly so. Which gets me back to the point I've been trying to hammer home - contention does not make for good drama.

Understandably, reviewers are head over heels for Nicole Kidman. Most obviously, hers is a brilliant performance and it is this performance more than anything that gives depth to the character and indeed carries the play forward. But let me just add this: it is an easy part. There is no denying Nicole Kidman is a fabulous actress, but I think this script requires little virtuosity. This is Chopin playing Danny Boy.

I did like the direction and how natural it felt to have all the characters on stage all the time, I liked the sense of separation of spaces, the minimal set changes and in general all the choices Michael Grandage made.

Something good to be said about the set design, too. I thought the cellar full of debris will make little sense before the play, but it is in fact an excellent background for the story, with the additional merit of being historically accurate. The panel lit floor is a great choice too, its effect in the key moment of characters witnessing the DNA model gives the exact sense of wonderment the real scientists must've felt and its effect highly surpasses whatever actual model the designer could've come up with.

I have seen it often on the West End - specially in limited run productions - designers fall too much in love with their sets and then it becomes its own thing. The background comes to the fore, overshadowing the actual play. I was glad it is not the case here. Same goes for music and lights. Both sound and light design are discreet but efficient, just like they should. They underline, emphasize and always support, but never lead. The absolute mark of good production management in my opinion.

And now to the core of the issue that's eating at me: Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin. People who know me also know how much I love Nicole Kidman and how I'd never utter anything bad about her. I do wonder though: would this play have been the sold out run it is if the lead actress had less of a name? Take Nicole Kidman away and you'd struggle to get the script in the most uptight fringe venues in London. I don't like it, but I have accepted it as a fact that star actors is the number one deciding factor in terms of ticket sales. Does it serve the script right, though, to be staged in front of an audience that's there solely to see the lead? And more importantly, does it serve Rosalind Franklin right? Would the quirky, awkward, weird, sexually repressed scientist think her most suitable interpreter is one of the most famous sex symbols of our age? This is in no way a reflection on either of the two women - they're both great just the way they are -  but, if anything, on the audiences, on the general public and on the state of the art consumption.

A very small proportion of this show's public actually cares about Rosalind Franklin as they go in the theatre. If, a hundred minutes later, their interest for the Jewish scientist, for X-ray photography or for the discovery of the DNA double helix structure has increased the least bit then maybe yes, the play is best served by a star actor to top the bill. But has it?

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