It’s been 17 years since Kidman last appeared on stage, compelling and briefly starkers in David Hare’s The Blue Room, a West End performance that transferred to Broadway. Last night, she opened at the Noël Coward Theatre in Anna Ziegler’s intense biodrama Photograph 51, a character study of chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose critical contribution to the discovery of DNA has long been all but ignored in a male-dominated field. Michael Grandage’s production for his self-named company has drawn near-ecstatic acclaim for Kidman — and the play — across the board, including from New York Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley, who concludes his notice, “[A]s directed by Mr. Grandage, with a wintry set by Christopher Oram that conjures a London in ashes after World War II, Photograph 51 sustains a crisp dramatic tension even when it skirts banality or expository tedium. And Ms. Kidman, who turns Franklin’s guardedness into as much a revelation as a concealment of character, is pretty close to perfection. The character she plays, after all, would surely demand nothing less.”
Although Grandage declined, before the opening, to discuss a move to Broadway, there’s little doubt that those discussions will be getting under way in the days to come. Meanwhile Kidman is enjoying thumbs-up on both sides of the Atlantic as The Family Fang, in which she costars with director Jason Batemen and a host of stage veterans, unspoooled at the Toronto International Film Festival, to strong positive reaction.
(It’s also worth noting that Photograph 51 is the second acclaimed drama this season, along with Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Informed Consent, to have come through the development process at, among other theaters, off-off-Broadway’s estimable Ensemble Studio Theatre and its affiliation with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s support of stage works with a scientific pedigree. Note to producers: Both are by women, and about women. Speaking of wonders.)
Here’s a sampling from the London reviews of Photograph 51:
Michael Billington, The Guardian: “You could hardly have a greater contrast than with Nicole Kidman’s last appearance on the London stage. In David Hare’s The Blue Room (1998) she played 10 starkly revealing women in a sexual daisy-chain. Now she plays the scientist Rosalind Franklin who eschewed intimate relationships and whose vital contribution to uncovering the structure of DNA has been marginalised. 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.”
Paul Taylor, The Independent: “In her compelling and subtle performance, Kidman beautifully captures the prickly defensiveness, the lonely dedication, and the suppressed emotional longings of the scientist. Her father, we learn in Ziegler’s version, had warned her that if she persisted with a scientific career, she ‘must never be wrong’ as that would risk losing everything. Kidman shows you that the immaculately turned-out perfectionist is paying the penalty for the fear he sowed back then.”
Matt Wolf, theartsdesk: “[G]uess what? Back on the London boards to play the erotically indrawn scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 under the direction of Michael Grandage, Kidman is even better communicating a life of the mind than she was all those years ago allowing the briefest glimpse possible of her body. As savvy about-faces from Oscar-winning performers go, this one is going to prove hard to top.”
Mark Shenton, The Stage: “I can’t say that I honestly understood all the science presented. As with life itself, you have to take a lot of it on trust. But the play is actually partly about a powerful sense of distrust — and of bad faith … In an intricately layered series of revelations, it becomes several plays all at once: a thriller about a race of discovery; an exposé about sexism in science and a treatise about loneliness, as these scientists studiously avoid relationships that might interfere with their work. As with previous Grandage projects, the play is led by a star actor — in this case Nicole Kidman … Here she doesn’t strip physically … but the emotional layers are gradually exposed no less revealingly. She is surrounded by a brilliant team of male actors that include Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, her colleague and adversary whom the play suggests harboured deeper feelings towards her than he let on. The result is a beautiful, tender and surprising new play that elevates the West End.”