There is much to like about Photograph 51 from this burnt out critic’s point of view. Its running time is 90 minutes straight through, and it’s paced briskly, so it’s almost impossible to be bored before the end (unlike other plays on right now). It has affordably priced tickets (ten pounds in the front row of the gods, a completely acceptable place to watch this show as long as you don’t have vertigo). It’s actually about something intellectually interesting and unusual – the discovery of DNA – and has chosen as its a lead character the historical character – Rosalind Franklin – who was a very hard core scientist at a time when few women did this work. This character is, curiously, portrayed by Nicole Kidman.
The story is about how Dr. Franklin gets a job working with another researcher at King’s College in the early 50s. She has to deal with an inherently sexist, demeaning establishment; they (every other character is a man) have to deal with a cold, defensive intellectual who is extraordinarily stiff and uncompromising. Admittedly, much of this is due to the trials Franklin had to deal with to become and work as a scientist during difficult times (for women and for Jewish people); but in the memories she recalls of her childhood it seems like she was always driven, competitive, and not really concerned with connecting with others.
While the story people racing to discover DNA is, in itself, quite involving, Franklin, as a character, is a difficult person to muster sympathy for. She is wholly involved in her work to the exclusion of connection with other people, and I found that made it hard for me to connect with her. While the end of the play was, in its way, tragic, I found it hard to get very passionate about Franklin and left unmoved. Photograph 51 hit the bar of being worth the money I paid for it (and the time invested), but left me feeling distant from what I had seen – rather, again, like Song From Far Away, but for much less money. And just to make it all a little more ironic: the actual photograph was taken by a PhD student, Raymond Gosling.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, September 10th, 2015. It runs through November 21st.)