By Dennis Kelly
Organised by Hull Truck Theatre
Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley Street, Southwark, London SE1 2HZ, UK
Tuesday 24 April 2012
'What's more important, one person or everyone?' That's the question at the centre of Dennis Kelly's dark and chilling play, DNA.
I have to admit I wasn't sure what to expect from a play called 'DNA'. As scrolling images of DNA fingerprints spookily filled the backdrop to the stage I tried to quell the suspicion that I would be spending the next 70 minutes inwardly groaning at the scientific inaccuracies that were sure to feature.
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. The play isn't about DNA, genetics or even science. It's about group psychology and the lengths to which you would go to protect yourself and your friends. As the synopsis teases: 'It's a play about being human'.
It all starts with an accident. A group of school friends amuse themselves by bullying one of their own; so far, so familiar for anyone who can remember being a teenager. However, when a prank goes too far with tragic results, a carefully orchestrated cover-up provides the catalyst to a series of chilling events with unforeseen consequences. An innocent man is accidentally framed; the youngsters' lives begin to unravel and a shocking twist makes you wonder how things could possibly have got this far.
Except that it's obvious how things got this far. The group's journey from being complicit in a genuine accident to knowingly committing a vicious crime was uncomfortably short and followed a logical path. Though unspeakably cruel and woefully misguided, as you look back at the decisions leading up to this point, you can't help but see how easily events ended up here.
What's most unsettling, however, is the effect the shared burden has on the group dynamics. Initially bringing the group closer together ('Grief is making them happy'), as events spiral out of control and the burden becomes too much for some to bear, individual struggles are ignored and even exploited to further the protection of the group. When did the group become more important than the individuals within it?
This is a dark play but there are lighter moments that lift the mood and stop it becoming too morbid ('I can't get involved in this. I'm going to be a dentist!'). The play has a cyclical feel to it, alternating between woodland scenes in which most of the action takes place and quieter moments with the two protagonists, Leah and Phil, sat side by side in a field.
It's the latter scenes that provide most of the comedy, with Leah (played by Leah Brotherhead) awkwardly trying to engage a moody and silent Phil (James Alexandrou) in conversation in a series of rambling, yet endearing, monologues. On the whole these long, repetitive narratives worked well and gave a sense of time passing and life continuing on. Some of the Leah/Phil scenes did drag on a bit, though, and you could sense the attention span of the mostly teenage audience beginning to wane.
The play was commissioned by the National Theatre in 2007 as part of its Connections programme, which invites leading writers to produce plays for young people. Performed entirely by young actors, DNA has been included in the GCSE curriculum and it's easy to see why. The eight characters in the play are instantly recognisable as your typical mix of teenagers and the changing group dynamics, particularly the shifts in power, are realistic.
On the night I attended, the audience was made up almost exclusively of school parties. Aside from the odd inappropriate snigger or comment – handled patiently by a universally convincing cast – the audience responded well. They laughed in the right places, gasped in the right places and, in the end, the play achieved what not many things can these days – it engaged and shocked an audience of teenagers. You can't really say fairer than that.
At the Q&A session following the performance, writer Dennis Kelly insisted that he had no specific message in mind when he wrote the play. He recalled that when he was a teenager it would be his friends that he would go to when he was in trouble, rather than a parent or teacher. That was the inspiration behind the story – a group of friends doing whatever it takes to protect each other. The central question is - at what point does the individual cost become too high to maintain group solidarity?
I found the play a convincing, thought-provoking and unnervingly realistic portrayal of the power of teenage group mentality.
Put simply, as Kelly says: 'It's about a group of teenagers who do something very wrong, and then cover it up'.
DNA is on currently on tour in England and Wales.