plays about science

Anna Ziegler on Nicole Kidman’s Power, Midnight Carriages, and the Magical Journey and London Run of PHOTOGRAPH 51

Nicole Kidman and Anna Ziegler

PHOTOGRAPH 51, Anna Ziegler’s acclaimed play about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, was the EST/Sloan Mainstage Production in 2010. This fall Nicole Kidman chose PHOTOGRAPH 51 for her return after seventeen years to the West End stage in London. The Michael Grandage production opened to rave reviews on September 14 and continues through November 21 at the Noel Coward Theatre. The playwright traveled to London for pre-production meetings, rehearsals, previews and opening night and was kind enough to answer some of our eager questions about the experience.

Interview by Rich Kelley

PHOTOGRAPH 51 is enjoying a sold-out run at the Noel Coward Theatre in London through the end of November. How did this happen? How much time did you get to spend with the director and cast? Is the process of how a playwright works with a director and cast different there than in the US?

PHOTOGRAPH 51 has had a strange and somewhat magical journey. It started as a commission from a small theater outside of DC, made its way around the country in about ten small and mid-sized productions (including the one at EST!), and then, through a mix of luck and timing, landed a production on the West End seven or so years later. I don’t have great clarity about how the London production came about. To the best of my knowledge, Michael Grandage, the then-artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, came to see a play of mine in London in 2008 called Dov and Ali. He and his producing partner James Bierman liked the show and kept me in mind when they were looking for plays for the Michael Grandage Company's first season. James met with my agent, who gave him PHOTOGRAPH 51. He and Michael read and were interested in it, but didn't find the right actress to star in it for their inaugural season of work. Then, when Nicole Kidman and Michael started talking about doing a play together, she noted that she'd want it to be a new play, as opposed to a classic. He sent her PHOTOGRAPH 51. Amazingly enough, it spoke to her and after about a year of contract negotiations the production was finally a go. So, after a few long years of a West End production hanging in the balance, things suddenly happened quickly – we did a read-through of the script in New York in July; Michael and James set about casting the rest of the play, and rehearsals started at the end of August. I flew to England for the first week, and then returned to New York where another play of mine, A Delicate Ship, was soon to open. I was back in London for the final couple of run-throughs before tech, and then for the week of previews. I can't say generally whether the British process of director/playwright collaboration is different than the American process, but I can say that this particular process felt very unique. Michael Grandage's method is to stage the play immediately – so there was no table work at the beginning of rehearsals. This forces actors to dive in and make decisions about their characters early, to get inside their bodies as a way of coming to understand their souls. 

Poster for London run of Photograph 51

Can we take a moment to comb through the amazing reviews this production of your play has received?  About Kidman Michael Billington in The Guardian wrote “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.” Hailing the production as “a triumph,” The Telegraph gushed “Were PoPthe play simply to assert that Franklin was robbed of the prestige that was rightly hers . . . it would serve a valid but rather worthy purpose. It’s much more fascinating than that, though. It deals with timely feminist issues but also the key fundamentals of how we relate to each other, who we are, our tragic flaws.” The Independent found the production “glorious” and the play “engrossing,” going on to say “Ziegler’s thoughtful, empathetic play brings home with bitter comedy the unlovely male-domination of this [scientific] world in the 1950s.” The Evening Standard wrote that “Ziegler writes with wit and tenderness about flawed and brilliant individuals.” The reviewer for The Daily Mail seemed less smitten but still gave it four out of five stars and called the play “gripping.” The Stage called it “several plays all at once: a thriller about a race of discovery, an expose about sexism in science . . . and a treatise about loneliness” and “a beautiful, tender and surprising new play that elevates the West End.”  And even Ben Brantley of The New York Times flew across the pond to report that “Ms. Kidman, who turns Franklin’s guardedness into as much a revelation as a concealment of character, is pretty close to perfection.” Whew! Congrats! Do you have a favorite (and did I miss any good ones)? Of course, as a writer you probably are more likely to remember some of the critical things I didn’t include. Did anything smart?

Wow – thanks for digging all of those up. I haven't read them all (I try not to, but usually lose my resolve). As any playwright would, I appreciate most the ones that not only say nice things about the play but seem to have given some thought to what it set out to do and how it does it. In that vein, one memorable review was written by Stephen Curry in The Guardian; Curry’s a scientist, not a regular theater reviewer, and still wrote so insightfully about the play's aims and structure. He’s also one of the very few who noted that Maurice Wilkins is an equally tragic figure in the play, which I appreciated, as I very much agree. Mark Shenton is my new hero because he wrote positive, eloquent reviews for not one but two outfits – The Stage and Of course there were reviews that hurt. I think every writer knows that it's unlikely one will please everyone but there is still some hope that it will happen just this once. In the end, I try to remind myself how subjective the reviews are – that when one critic notes how badly drawn a character is, another will inevitably praise that character’s depiction. A show also changes a good deal from night to night (especially during previews when the critics are in), so the particular performance a critic attends can have a lot of bearing on the review he or she writes. But truly I am mostly just relieved that the production has been considered a success.

The trailer for the London production of PHOTOGRAPH 51

PHOTOGRAPH 51 was the mainstage EST/Sloan production at EST in 2010 and it’s had several productions since. How has the play changed over the last five years?  

As more scientists have gotten involved, some of the science in the play has been corrected, phrases here and there that weren’t completely accurate or suggested an incorrect chronology. Michael Grandage and Nicole Kidman also had some notes for me for this production in particular – these had mostly to do with expanding the backstory for some of the characters and getting clearer about why Rosalind couldn’t take the intellectual risks and leaps that the men in the play do.

At EST PHOTOGRAPH 51 played in a house with less than 100 seats. The Noel Coward Theatre has more than 800 seats. Did you or the director or the actors have to make any adjustments for such a large house?

Photograph 51 on stage at the Noel Coward Theatre in London

Photograph 51 on stage at the Noel Coward Theatre in London

Well, for one thing the actors are miked! It’s very subtle (I would never have known it was happening if I wasn’t told) but useful. And I think that some of the staging and direction are skewed towards the need to engage a large house and a large British house to boot. For instance, there are moments that Michael chose to represent as slightly less emotional than I’ve seen them done in American productions because the English are a bit quicker to feel something is becoming sentimental.

In his interview this month with Nicole in Interview, Lee Daniels, who directed her in Paperboy, describes how when she walks into a room, it’s like royalty walked in. But then she flips everyone’s expectations on them by becoming just one of the guys. I wonder if you experienced that.

I did! One example – at an early rehearsal, a voice and dialect coach visited and had the actors do warm-up exercises. This coach wasn’t Nicole’s coach (she had her own) but when she instructed the actors to lie on the floor and make various noises and physical gestures, Nicole joined right in. But yes, there is certainly an unmistakable aura to her, despite her down to earth behavior. Even when she was speaking about being nervous before the opening preview, so nervous she couldn’t sleep the night before, her strength of character shone through, and I didn't worry about her nerves interfering with her performance. One of the actors told me early in rehearsals that acting opposite her gave him the shivers – he would look into her eyes and just be transfixed. She has a real power.

Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin (photo by Johan Persson)

Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin (photo by Johan Persson)

On opening night numerous luminaries of stage and screen appeared on the Red Carpet for PHOTOGRAPH 51: Kenneth Branagh. Derek Jacobi . Dawn French. Elizabeth McGovern. Katherine Kingsley. David Williams. Take us into the experience of opening night on London’s West End. Did you get interviewed on the Red Carpet? Who did you wear? Is there a London equivalent of Sardi’s where you waited afterwards for the reviews to come in?

There was no interview, but there were photographs with Michael and the cast at the reception after the show, which felt very glamorous. I was a bit giddy – I think I was just so relieved that some reviews had come out and the play wasn’t a flop! We all spent a good deal of time at the reception, and you’ll be amused to hear that the invite to the party noted that “carriages” would come to collect people at midnight. (And I admit – I did get a new dress. I felt very British and very posh, popping over to Selfridge’s the week before, and picking out a casual but not too casual Victoria Beckham number for the occasion.)

I know that James Watson came to see the EST production of the play. Have any of the other scientists depicted in the play seen this production or another (I know that Raymond Gosling sadly died earlier this year). What was their reaction to the play?  

Yes, I was so sad that Ray Gosling passed away – his son, Tim Gosling, came to the play, though, and seemed to enjoy it (on the basis of some lovely tweets), which is really all one could hope for. Don Caspar saw the play in New York at the World Science Festival and flew to London to see this production too. He was (and is) wonderful. He’s very supportive, even though there are liberties taken with his character. We had lunch in London, and he met the cast after the play when he came to see it. He and Nicole had the biggest, most heartfelt hug. And he and Patrick Kennedy, who plays Caspar, had a terrific hello too. It was amazing to see. Another scientist who worked with Rosalind, Kenneth Holmes, flew to London from Germany to see the play, and told me afterwards that he’d cried the whole time, because he’d gotten to see Rosalind again.

Following the opening of the play, there was an article in The Independent asserting that some scientists, including Brian Sutton who it cites was one of your science advisors, claimed that the play is unfair in its depiction of Maurice Wilkins. I wonder if you’d care to comment on that.

I’m surprised to hear that some think the Wilkins depiction unfair as I find him to be a hugely sympathetic character. To me, he’s a man trying to do his best in very difficult circumstances. And the play is not a crusade to right wrongs done to Franklin, or to show anyone in a bad light. It’s a portrait of two people who tried to work together and through mutual fault, weren’t able to. 

In particular, it seemed strange that Brian Sutton, professor of molecular biophysics at King's College and one of the play's great champions (and someone with whom I'd spoken at length about the play), had a major issue with it and hadn't told me. So when I read the article you cite, I emailed Sutton to ask him about it and I think you'll find his response interesting:

“Regarding Wilkins, I definitely don’t have a problem with the play! . . . Steve Conner and I have a different interpretation of what happens on stage. He sees it as Wilkins taking Photograph 51 from Franklin’s drawer; I see it as Wilkins taking it from his own drawer. After all, surely the scene has changed to Wilkins’ lab. Caspar even says: “Down the hall, Watson was with Wilkins . . .” While annoyed that Conner has made out that I have a problem with the play, I am happy that this is debated at least, since the facts can be brought out – that Wilkins was given a copy of Photograph 51 (by Gosling) and didn’t steal it.  Of course he should not really have shown it to Watson, not least because, by his own admission (in his autobiography), he hadn’t realised what effect it would have on Watson.” 

So, it seems Sutton was taken out of context to serve Conner's agenda in the piece.

The Telegraph reported that members of Rosalind Franklin’s family said Franklin would have been “astonished” to be regarded as a feminist icon. Did any of them actually see the play? What do you make of that reaction?

Many in the Franklin clan have seen the play. A group of Rosalind’s nieces and nephews are flying to London this week to see it for a second time, so the play certainly has the support of much of, if not the whole, family. But more importantly, I agree that Rosalind wouldn’t want to be considered a feminist icon and I didn’t set out to make her into one. All I can say is that, if the play has contributed to that sense of her, I hope it’s not because it paints her as a victim, but because it shows that she persevered in the name of the work and the work alone at a time when she had to ignore that it was difficult for her to do so.

What’s next for Anna Ziegler?

I have world premiere plays opening on opposite coasts this winter, so it’ll be a busy time. One of them – Boy – brings me back to EST, about which I could not be more thrilled. Linsay Firman, who directed the wonderful EST production of PHOTOGRAPH 51, will be directing. It will be a co-production with the Keen Company (with support from the Sloan Foundation), and should be, unlike Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins’, a great collaboration. The other new play is called The Last Match and it’ll be on in February in San Diego at The Old Globe Theatre, directed by G T Upchurch. In the spring, The Last Match will go up at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, directed by Tracy Brigden, and Another Way Home, starring the incredible Rick Foucheux and directed by Shirley Serotsky (twin sister of EST-favorite Aaron Serotsky!), will have a second life at Theatre J in Washington, DC in June. 

On April 14, 2016 Michael Riedel reported in The New York Post that PHOTOGRAPH 51 will be coming to Broadway in the fall of 2016. 

The creative team behind the London run of Photograph 51. From left, Edward Bennett (Francis Crick), Michael Grandage (director), Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin), Anna Ziegler (playwright), Will Attenborough (James Watson), and Stephen Campbell Moore (Maurice Wilkins)

The creative team behind the London run of Photograph 51. From left, Edward Bennett (Francis Crick), Michael Grandage (director), Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin), Anna Ziegler (playwright), Will Attenborough (James Watson), and Stephen Campbell Moore (Maurice Wilkins)