Introduction to DNA

The play DNA was first staged in 2007 at the National Theatre before going on national tour for the first time. It’s a play about a group of teenagers, who could be described as a ‘gang’, who have accidentally killed one of their classmates. When they realize the terrible mistake they have made, they try to cover up this crime, but inadvertently implicate an innocent man in the process. At each moment when they could come clean, the group instead weaves a darker, more complex web of lies.

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Structure of the play

The play has been constructed with a cyclical narrative. The structure repeats itself and when we read the play we come to realize that there is a pattern to the sequence of the different scenes – and to the three different locations. For example, the first scene is always Mark and Jan in A Street, who introduce the problem of that particular section. Then it’s Leah and Phil, before moving on to a greater scene with everyone where the problem is solved. This sequence is repeated throughout the play.

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There are eleven characters in the play: Mark and Jan; Leah and Phil; Lou, John Tate and Danny; Richard; Cathy and Brian and a boy (Adam). However, although the author has given the characters names and gender, he has made a note allowing performers to change names and gender to suit their own preference. The character traits and the moral choices they make are more important than a name. 

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Jan and Mark

Jan and Mark appear together at the beginning of each section. They act as narrators or as a ‘Greek chorus’ and throw the audience directly into the action at the beginning of each section. They are also used to fill in any blanks for us and make us aware of any new developments in the story. Their scenes follow the same pattern each time: they introduce a ‘teasing’ idea of what has happened but leave us curious. They are used to hook the interest of the audience. They speak very short sentences – often one word each, constantly interrupting each other. They repeat phrases the other one has said and they never really create proper, full sensible sentences. The actors portraying these characters must take all this into consideration because the pace of their scenes is important. Any delay between words or phrases could make their scenes very uninteresting to the audience. Yet they must make sure that as a ‘chorus’ they make things clear to the audience.

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Leah and Phil are another pair of characters who always appear together. Leah is the talkative one and Phil is the character who doesn’t say anything in scenes where they are together, but just eats. Leah obviously adores Phil but he just ignores her. He doesn’t respond verbally to what she says which results in Leah having long speeches or monologues. The actress portraying Leah faces a challenge to make these long monologues interesting to the audience. She repeats a lot, jumps from topic to topic, asks Phil rhetorical questions and answers her own questions. This means that the actress must use her vocal skills to the full. She must consider pace, pitch, volume and pauses. She has to consider the different moods conveyed in her long monologues.

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Phil on the other hand is the silent one, especially in the scenes with Leah. The stage directions make it clear that he eats a lot: Phil eating an ice cream; Phil opens his bag of crisps and begins to eat them etc. This character again is a challenge to any young actor. Because he doesn’t say anything in the scenes with Leah, the actor must act with his body and his facial expressions. The author doesn’t give him many stage directions as far as movement is concerned e.g. Phil shrugs (p. 32) Phil looks up (p. 32). It’s up to the actor then to decide on his movements and facial expressions when Leah rants on and on in her monologues in front of him. It’s significant that Phil doesn’t eat in the final scene – which possibly suggests that he really misses Leah! Although silent in the scenes between him and Leah, Phil can be a powerful figure when he is with the other characters. They listen to him and seem frightened of him. In these scenes he has a controlling and reassuring body language. Here the stage directions for him are more specific, e.g. when answering Lou’s question on page 57 about Cathy, the stage directions state: Phil goes to her. Places a hand on her shoulder, smiles, warm, reassuring.

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John Tate

John Tate only appears in one scene – Scene 3 Section 1. When we first see him he appears to be the leader of the group. This doesn’t last long and his leadership is challenged. He becomes very stressed and is visibly falling apart during this scene. It is obvious from his mannerisms, from his words, from his interaction with the other characters that he feels incredibly guilty by the death of Adam. He even tries to ban the word ‘death’. An actor playing this character must be aware of his stress and insecurity following threatening and aggressive behaviour at the start of the play.

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Cathy finds the whole situation exciting and ‘better than ordinary life’ (p. 16). She is excited rather than horrified by the police investigation. She seems to enjoy conflict and is a cruel and disturbed character who at the end is prepared to kill Adam. She is capable of violence and cruelty towards others e.g. the way she slaps Brian.

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Brian is the weakest link in the group. The other characters must see him as such and someone the police could believe to be a victim of the ‘fake man’. He is the only character to cry and it’s obvious that he’s visibly affected by Adam’s death.

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Lou is another follower – she swears a lot and again panics over Adam’s death. Although she is on stage a lot, she is often quiet. This will be a challenge to the actress because, as with some of the others, her body language and facial expressions are important as a response to what is said and happening around her. She is easily manipulated.

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Danny is intelligent but is a follower. He is disturbed by Adam’s death and is terrified that it will affect his future – he wants to be a dentist. He repeats a lot and seems to have a one-track mind.

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Adam does not appear physically until Section 3. When he appears it is a massive shock to the others that he is still alive. The stage directions describe his appearance thus: “ His clothes are torn and dirty and his hair is matted with dried blood from an old gash in his forehead that has not been cleaned up. He stands there, twitchily, staring at them as though they are aliens and it looks as though he might run off at any moment. ”

The actor playing this part must consider that Adam is the victim, he is weak, he is desperate, lonely and bullied. When he does appear, the actor must remember that his speech is confused and staggered.

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Richard seems to be a responsible character and when we first meet him he appears to have the potential to be a leader. He is completely missing from Section 3 and when he appears in the final scene it seems that he has now taken the place of Leah as narrator.

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Staging of the play

There are three different locations in the play – all of them outdoors; the street, the field and the wood. The scenes in the street are rather short. In these scenes the audience are made aware of what has been happening and are prepared for what will happen in the group scenes. Because they are short, the set must be minimal for a quick change of scenery before we move into the field and then into the wood.

The learners could be asked to experiment with different types of staging and decide what works best. Would the play, for example, work on a thrust stage with a different background to depict the different locations? On the other hand, it could be staged in the round with special lighting and sound effects to depict the locations. The wood, for example, is a suitable setting for the group scenes. Woods tend to be dark, mysterious and isolated and this complements the discussions that the group have in the woods – discussions about things that should be hidden from the outside world. The group’s attempt at a cover-up of the crime is reflected in this setting of a wood, where the trees would make it easy for them to hide. This kind of setting would be a challenge to the lighting designer to suggest the horrific and threatening behaviour of the group.

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Very informative but would be even better if they were more compact :)

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