By Rachel E. Tavaler
Collingwood’s Woodplayers live up to their name by bringing the woods, in which the action of Dennis Kelly’s play DNA takes place, to their brand new theatre, the Mark Hillery Arts Centre. Reading the programme before the play (from which the set-designer, Gabby Linning’s, tree puns inspired the opening of my review), I was struck by the energetic playfulness with which the cast and crew approached the dark subject matter of Kelly’s play. This mingling of the relaxed humour of the cast and the seriousness of the play mirrors a central dichotomy of the play itself: the innocence of youth in the teenagers who must deal with their collective guilt in the abuse of their friend, Adam.
In his director’s note, Shayon Banerji writes about the ways in which Kelly’s characters’ emotional experiences are universal to students (and indeed to human beings in general). It is perhaps in an attempt to include the audience in this universality that the decision was made to use sound and lighting to create glimpses of moments through various characters’ eyes. Whilst the innovation of this decision must be appreciated, it feels rather out of step with the naturalistic style of the production. For example, when Mark (Martin Docherty) describes the heart-wrenching sequence of events leading to a tragic reveal, a plonk is played over the speaker each time Docherty mimes throwing a stone. Particularly in a scene which imparts so much significance and emotional information, these sounds do not contribute to the audience’s visualisation of Adam being stoned, but rather created a jarring distraction from both Docherty’s emotional performance and from the lines themselves. Kelly’s words, combined with skilful acting (which Woodplayers, on the whole, deliver), renders other supplementation to provide the audience with a connection to the characters unnecessary.
There is one instance, however, in which this technical decision serves a secondary and perhaps unintentional, though no less thought-provoking, purpose. In a scene in which Leah (Amie Page) attempts to choke herself to get the attention of Phil (Alexi Baramidze), the lights begin to dim as Leah suffocates. Before this scene, the audience has been led to expect abrupt endings to the scenes between Leah and Phil. As the lights dim on the image of Leah with her hands around her own throat, the audience is teased with the potential of a particularly evocative and abrupt ending to this scene. The audience’s expectations are then excitingly defied when the lights come back up as Leah catches her breath.
Indeed, the scenes between Page and Baramidze are on the whole the most compelling. Although, particularly at the start of the play, Page appears at times to rush her lines, her command of the stage, during scenes in which she does almost all of the speaking, is highly commendable. Furthermore, the chemistry, and contrast in energy, between Page and Baramidze makes for a dynamic viewing experience. Rather than being upstaged by Page’s fast, bubbly and talkative character, Baramidze’s calmer, intense energy provides a foil which balances the energy of the scene. It must be acknowledged that Baramidze gives the standout performance. Facing the formidable challenge of acting in many scenes in which he says nothing, Baramidze retains character and stage presence. His reactions to the scenes are subtle yet clear enough to communicate a skilful and well thought-out intention behind every moment. Whilst at times the larger scenes feel over-rehearsed, with the cast sometimes anticipating each other’s lines before they are delivered, each moment in the scenes between Page and Baramidze gives the impression that it is happening for the first time.
The character of Brian (Martin Shore), whose function in the play consists mainly of crying and then going crazy, presents challenges to any actor taking on the role. However, much like Baramidze’s character, there is scope within these challenges for an actor to sink their teeth into the role, which Shore does not fully realise. At the climax of the play, Peter Kissack’s only scene is somewhat upstaged by Shore’s overacting. Shore confounds craziness with drunkenness, not only “giggling” as the script tells us he does, but stumbling about in a way that is distracting. Kissack’s madness is much more fully realised: his shivering stillness, in contrast to the chaotic bustle of the other characters in the scene around him, reinforces the otherness of his character suggested in Kelly’s play.
The play ends where it could, like real life, go on indefinitely.
At the end of the play, there was a tentative pause before the audience knew it was time to applaud. This does not, however, signal a failing. Kelly leaves DNA on an open-ended, somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The play ends where it could, like real life, go on indefinitely. This audience’s uncertainty was because we were expecting the play to continue, signalling that the cast has accomplished that universality and realism which Banerji set out to achieve.