By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - Nicole Kidman, whose last appearance on stage in London was described by one reviewer as "pure theatrical Viagra", has captivated audiences again with her performance as the sidelined scientist who helped unlock the secret of DNA.
The Oscar-winning actor's portrait of Rosalind Franklin, who battles sexism in male-dominated 1950s Britain in Anna Ziegler's play "Photograph 51", opened to glowing reviews on Monday.
Kidman's return to the London stage had been eagerly awaited following her debut here 17 years ago in David Hare's "The Blue Room", a play about a chain of sexual encounters.
This time she is a very different character: the super-smart but prickly Rosalind Franklin, a chemist whose work in X-ray crystallography was crucial to understanding the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
Her role in the landmark discovery of its double-helix structure never received the same recognition as Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.
Franklin, whose X-ray image known as photograph 51 was pivotal to the breakthrough, died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. Ziegler's play helps move her from the margins of science history to center stage.
But it also confronts her demons, including an unwillingness to collaborate and a reluctance to entertain scientific theories, which meant she missed the significance of her own work. Her photograph provided the vital clue, but the theoreticians Crick and Watson had the imagination to solve the puzzle by building a hypothetical model of DNA.
Franklin comes across as a satisfyingly complex character, simultaneously a cold and unyielding colleague but also someone with real passion for her work who toils into the night in a basement laboratory at a bombed-out King's College London.
Kidman, 48, said she was apprehensive about returning to the stage, but the play resonated for her personally. Her father, Antony Kidman, was a biochemist who died almost exactly a year ago.
"That's very much a part of my desire to pay tribute to scientists of the world with this play," she said. "My memory as a child is science labs."
The play has been staged before in the United States, including in an off Broadway production in New York in 2010, but it is now being thrust into the limelight in the production directed by Michael Grandage, former artistic director of London's acclaimed Donmar Warehouse.
(Editing by Larry King)