DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) by Dennis Kelly

Given the increase in violent behaviour within and between teenage gangs, group dynamics and the processes of adolescent cruelty is an especially topical concern. It’s also a contentious, sensitive issue. Thoughtful analysis in the media is often eclipsed by emotive campaigns, characterised by a sensationalist blame-game and the search for a scape-goat. These issues, and the concomitant agendas they throw up, are ripe for theatrical exploration. Dennis Kelly’s DNA is an examination of a group of teenagers who hang out together in a wood. The play begins after a catastrophe: the group’s antics spiralled out of control and, for one poor minion, ended very badly. Kelly provides us with the aftermath, the panic, as the gang put their hierarchical system to one side in order to formulate an elaborate cover-up.

The retelling of Adam’s ordeal is distressing and provocative. The nature of the events described elicits a powerful, urgent, curiosity: what sort of society do we live in that young adults behave in this cruel and impervious way? Kelly’s investigation, however, assesses the group’s behaviour on a primal level, rather than locating it in a broader social context. This has earned the play comparison with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; however, the association has perhaps only a superficial validity. As the play’s title suggests, its analysis of group dynamics privileges the idea of embedded impulses, inherent behaviours, as if humans are simply organisms with a pre-determined set of operations. As such, human nature is understood within the wider context of the natural world, exemplified by references to chimps, stars, and grains of sand. Consequently, DNA doesn’t achieve the allegorical significance of Golding’s novel, and neither does it function as a piece of social commentary. Instead, it posits a somewhat vague cosmological perspective, which offers little in the way of analysis or diagnosis.

In GYT’s production, the stylistic choices firmly locate the action in the here and now of contemporary society. All of the characters are attired in clothes that reflect current fashion trends and there’s an awful lot of high volume teenage chart music going on. Hoodies, lip-gloss, cans of Coke, Lily Allen, folded arms, and slouchy, sulky demeanours; this almost canonised depiction of the modern-day teenager sets up a topical framework and corresponding expectations which are not vouchsafed by the script’s primitive orientation.

That said, the young cast deliver fantastic performances. DNA is an ensemble piece and the actors work very well together. Sarah Healy’s incessantly ruminative Lea is simultaneously exasperating and endearing. Brendan Clarke’s understated portrayal of mastermind Phil is both reassuringly measured and deeply unsettling. Oddball Cathy is initially a kooky, rather likeable character, and ends up displaying alarming sadistic tendencies - a trajectory gleefully depicted by Aoife Kilbane. The film piece which was the show’s coda was subtle and unintrusive. Adam and his chaperones tread through the wood looking like innocent children – not the sort of innocence of literary invention, but that primal innocence which encompasses the savage and the cruel. Perhaps if there had been more trees, and less Lily Allen, Kelly’s vision of human nature, reductive as it is, might have achieved a more persuasive poignancy throughout the piece.
  • Review
  • Theatre

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) by Dennis Kelly

14 - 25 July, 2009, as part of Galway Arts Festiva

Produced by Galway Youth Theatre
In Nun's Island Theatre

Directed by Niall Cleary

Lighting Design: Adam Fitzsimons

Set Design: Andrew Flynn

With: Brendan Clarke, Niamh Hanley, Katy Stewart, Sarah Healy, Claire Howley, Tanya Rosen, Eoin Butler Thornton, William Kennedy, Cassie Roddy, Owen Binchy, Aoife Kilbane