Activate present 'DNA' by Dennis Kelly. Kate-Bowe O'Brien

Activate present 'DNA' by Dennis Kelly. Kate-Bowe O'Brien

Emerging from under the wing of Graffiti Theatre Company 15 years ago, there is an impressive degree of professionalism about Activate Youth Theatre not least in their latest production of Dennis Kelly’s ever-topical play. The young cast of Activate Youth Theatre certainly have an honesty, commitment and keen work ethic that augurs well for their future in theatre. Here they are marshalled well through what are sometimes elliptical scenes.

The play which emerged from the Shell Connections project has become a successful piece around the world for youth theatres staging Dennis Kelly’s bleak vision of teenage culture. To say that it is about bullying is reductive as this might conjure notions of the 'issue play' ticking boxes of appropriate points to be made and instruction to be given. It is more engaging than that as it becomes an act of total immersion in the story of a particularly barbaric act of violence. Co-directors Geraldine O’Neill and Julie O’Leary work very well with the young cast to create a sense of a hermetically sealed world operating to its own rites and rituals in a manner that echoes Lord of the Flies.

Ian O’Gorman’s backdrop film of woodlands and washes of movement creates a spooky sense of a kind of contemporary fairytale world where bad things happen in the woods. Anthony Hanley’s subtle lighting helps to create the impression of this world as a strange island of barbarism existing only in the theatre. But the fact that the horrors are rooted in the uglier side of humanity lend the play its edge and energy.

The play is a good choice for a youth theatre and their commitment to the work shows. Oddly, the fact that the play is so well written presents particular challenges to the young actors. The clipped style of dialogue is such that one imagines a script partly consisting of isolated words, incomplete sentences and lots of dots or dashes. Often the young actors do find their way into the rhythms of these chopped up passages but sometimes it feels like they are tongue-twisted by the jagged lines.

All of the teenaged characters are complicit in the dirty deed of the play from the tyrannical young leader who orchestrates it to those who hang on for the ride because it is all sooo funny. A twist in the tale offers a redemptive opportunity but it is spurned in favour of plumbing the depths of malevolence.

Phoebe Cotton gives us an amusing characterisation as the good-natured girl with stream of consciousness raps while Ciaran MacArtain brings some menace to the part of the gang leader getting everyone to keep the party line. To the credit of the whole cast they bring a nasty, cowardly and cruel world to life while always appearing to be all too recognisable - none of them individually might be expected to behave so monstrously.

It is refreshing to find that this is not a script that seeks comfort in a Cork or Dublin vernacular. Instead it is washed of local colour to become universal in its sense of place and is very particular to the stage. This expressiveness is accentuated by a number of stylised sequences of movement which are fairly well executed. While this adds to the ambition it does so at the slight expense of dance–dialogue transitions that feel like slightly clunky gear changes. Either the dialogue needed to be delivered in a more stylised fashion or the movements needed to arise with greater ease or fluidity.

That is not to say that this is anything less than an engaging and provocative production.

Liam Heylin

  • Review
  • Theatre

DNA by Dennis Kelly

24-26 March, 2011

Produced by Activate
In Graffiti Theatre

Directed by Geraldine O’Neill & Julie O’Leary

Movement: Julie O’Leary

Film Production & Operator: Ian O’Gorman

Lighting Design: Anthony Hanley

Sound Design: Carl Kennedy

With: Ciaran MacArtain, Ánna de Bont, Róisín Cottrell, Isabelle Hanrahan, Alan Dalton, Phoebe Cotton, Stuart Chisholm, Rebecca Feeley, Eoghan McConville, Liz Neville, Cormac ÓMainnín, Josephine Dennehy, Muireann Ní Néill