Book Review: DNA by Dennis Kelly

DNA by Dennis Kelly 

At a glance
  • A student book focused on the work of one of the world’s hottest writers of stage and screen with a talent to disturb
  • A play about a nihilistic group of teenagers who do something very wrong, and then cover it up
  • Encourages students to take an active role in interpreting the text for themselves
  • Deals with a whole host of contemporary issues
  • Compelling and immersive student notes for rigorous analysis

If you are looking for a play that will jar, jolt and judder then brace for impact and share Dennis Kelly’s guilt-ridden DNA. It’s brutal, it’s shocking and yet, in its madness, it is chillingly beautiful where the identity of the human subject is reduced to a molecule.


DNA was developed as a part of National Theatre’s Connections programme in 2007, which commissions playwrights to write plays for young performers aged 14-18 and this is pure dynamite. It’s now a core set text for GCSE Drama and English Literature.

The story centres on a group of teenagers bullying another student which goes too far and they are left with an unplanned death on their conscience. The aftermath of this act brings the characters closer together and pulls them apart.

Review of DNA at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch | Romford Recorder

These flawed and failing characters, who know right from wrong, try to make the best out of a bad situation but in the process concoct a darker, more desperate den of deceptions. They panic and decide to cover up their crime but inadvertently implicate an innocent man.

This incredibly powerful play will wrong-foot students and place them in the head, heart and soul of a dilemma and make them feel like they have blood on their hands. What would they do? The central question of the play centres around group dynamics and whether it is right to sacrifice the individual for the many.

DNA twists, turns and is full of tension and skilfully explores the nature of gangs, bullies, power, violence, friendship, trust, leadership, evolution, status, choices, protection, responsibility, morality and evil chimps.

These are the core, raw themes picked up in this Methuen Drama Student Edition, with superb commentary and notes by Professor Clare Finburgh Delijani who adroitly delves into the play’s context, characters, dramatic devices, genre, scenography, time staging possibilities and production history.

DNA | in London

What these notes do is to get students to adopt the skins and the psyche of the characters and to feel the fear as the shifts in power unfold. They amplify what it is to be fully human in it’s good, bad and ugly forms and they get our full attention. They also tune students into how Kelly destabilises language.

But they go further and deeper by setting these feelings inside jagged discussions about children, violence, torture and human rights abuse, the individual and community including the timeless and poetry of the everyday. Key characters are studied in detail and the roles they play with analysis focused around bullying, abuse, victimisation/survival and feminist non-violence. What they do so well is make students appreciate every comma and full stop and get to understand the characters as complex and three-dimensional. DNA is also an allegory for Western foreign policy and terrorism.

This edition will especially resonate with students as it examines the power of teenage group mentality and constantly throws them into the deadly drama as potential participants and vulnerable victims. It gets them to consider at what point does our morality make us turn the other way?

The notes deliberately provoke thought friction and actively agitate students’ thinking so they consider our responses towards cruelty, empathy, pack mentality, self-interest and self-preservation.

They push students to ask whether these behaviours are learned and societal or whether they lay deep inside us all and are hereditary.

There is little doubt that this book will help students develop their comprehension skills and learn to express their ideas about aspects of plot, characterisation, events and settings and to distinguish between literal and implied meanings.

It will also leave them asking more questions and wondering why Kelly left DNA open-ended, a play that could go on indefinitely.

The verdict
  • High-quality, ‘in-yer-face’, naturalistic and utterly contemporary
  • Develops critical reading skills and supports personal engagement with the text
  • Sparks intense discussion, shifts perceptions and plunges students into rainbow thinking
  • A study in pack behaviour, the psychology of choices and decision making in a world of disorder and chaos
  • A masterclass study book full of sharp, non-patronising and reflective writing analysis
 Upgrade if….

You are looking for a DNA student resource that will arrest student’s attention and get them to fully focus on warped relationship dynamics and how far they would go as friends to protect each other.

Cost: £9.89

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