Understanding DNA

DNA was written by Dennis Kelly, a British playwright, and opened at the National Theatre in 2008. The play explores modern fears about gang culture, bullying and peer pressure.

The main story is as follows:

  1. A teenage gang is responsible for the death of a boy, Adam, who wanted to join the group. He fell down a mineshaft as part of a hazing ritual.
  1. Phil takes control of planning the cover-up for Adam’s disappearance. An innocent man is framed by Cathy, a member of the gang who revels in the excitement of the cover-up.
  1. Adam is found wandering in the woods. In fear of being exposed for the cover-up, Phil and Cathy organise for Adam to be killed.
  1. Many of the gang leave, tormented by the guilt of their actions, including Phil. Cathy takes over the leadership, ruling in a ruthless, violent fashion.

The play takes place in three different settings:

  • A street in London where Jan and Mark gossip about developments in the crime and its cover-up.
  • A field where the couple Phil and Leah spend time together.
  • A wood near the school where the whole gang meets to make plans.

Act 1

Scene 1 (A street)Jan reacts to Mark’s news that an unnamed person has died. In shock and disbelief, she asks if Mark is joking. When she realises it’s true, she asks Mark what they will do, but he has no answer.
Scene 2 (A Field)Phil and Leah, a couple, sit in a field. Phil eats an ice cream in silence, while Leah speaks in a long monologue that reveals her insecurity about how Phil feels about her.

She admits that she is filled with fear about everything in life, but hopes their mutual support can conquer any difficulties they may face.

Jan and Mark enter, summoning them to the woods, which only increases Leah’s anxiety.
Scene 3 (A wood)While Lou and Danny panic – and Cathy feels excited – by the death of the dead boy, John Tate (the leader of the gang) tries to take control of the situation. However, after he tries to ban any use of the word “dead”, he is challenged by Richard, and the two have a confrontation, which John Tate wins. Brian is distressed by Adam’s death, and suggests that they confess to the authorities, but nobody agrees with him.

Jan and Mark arrive with Phil and Leah, and they explain that the dead boy was their classmate Adam, who wanted to be a member of the gang. They describe the hazing ritual, involving physical and psychological torture that they subjected him to. This led directly to him falling down an abandoned mineshaft.

The gang look to John Tate for direction, but – too stressed to be able to think straight – he can only defer to Phil, who suddenly starts speaking. Phil devises an intricate plan to make it appear that Adam has been kidnapped by a (made-up) postman they saw acting suspiciously. The rest of the gang are shocked at the detail and brilliance of Phil’s plan.
Scene 4 (A Field)Phil is once again silent and eating, while Leah talks at length about humans’ closest primate relatives: the benevolent Bonobos and the murderous chimps. In an attempt to get Phil’s attention, she tries to throttle herself, but then stops when he doesn’t react.

She expresses her fear about getting into trouble over Adam’s death, saying they are “in trouble now.”

Act 1 summary

In the aftermath of a fatal hazing ritual, the gang grapples with the reality of their classmate Adam’s death. While the gang leader, John Tate, attempts to take charge, Phil steps up with a calculated plan to cover up the crime, suggesting they frame a suspicious-looking postman they noticed earlier.

Act 2

Scene 1 (A street)Jan is now reacting to vague news from Mark about someone “not going” and being “insane”, which makes her very nervous. Again, she asks Mark what they will do, but receives no answer.
Scene 2 (A Field)While Phil eats sweets, Leah discusses how the natural order of the world has been disturbed by human existence, before announcing suddenly that she killed her pet rodent Jerry with a screwdriver.

She remarks that the group have been in happier spirits recently, and has been kinder to other students at school. The only exception is John Tate, who is having a breakdown and won’t come out of his room.
Scene 3 (A Wood)Danny tells the group that a man fitting the (false) description of the kidnapper has been arrested. To the shock of the others, Cathy explains how – using her “initiative” – she found a postman that was similar to the description Brian gave to the police and planted Adam’s DNA on him.

Jan and Mark arrive with Brian, who says that he won’t return to the police station to identify the innocent postman. Phil then threatens to throw him down the same mineshaft that Adam fell down. In fear, Brian agrees to go ahead with the plan.
Scene 4 (A Field)Leah attempts to engage Phil in a philosophical discussion about the nature of change, and whether humans are “doomed to behave” as their ancestors always have. In desperation for some communication between them, Leah begs Phil to answer, but he continues to ignore her.

Act 2 summary

As the cover-up progresses, the group experiences changes in dynamics and morale, with some showing signs of mental decline. Meanwhile, Cathy takes a bold step to ensure the effectiveness of their plan by planting evidence on an innocent postman, pushing the group further into moral descent.

Act 3

Scene 1 (A street)Jan now reacts to more vague news from Mark, this time that Cathy has “found him” in the woods. Mark says that only they and Cathy know this information at the moment.
Scene 2 (A Field)As Phil prepares to eat a waffle, Leah threatens to leave him, having packed a suitcase. However, she gives up on this when she gets no response, and sits down next to him.

She talks about Adam’s memorial, and how Jan, Mark and Cathy have been enjoying the attention of having been an apparent friend of his, while John Tate and Brian have gone into further mental decline. Leah asks Phil how he is feeling about the situation, which he doesn’t answer.

Jan and Mark tell them to come to the woods before Phil – much to his irritation – can eat his waffle.
Scene 3 (A Wood)The gang stand around a dishevelled boy who moves “twitchily”. In a twist, this is revealed to be Adam, who survived the fall but has lost his memory. He has been living in a hedge, surviving like a wild animal, and only came out when Cathy threatened violence on him. Brian, in a strange and manic state, giggles uncontrollably, causing Cathy to smack him.

To the horror of Leah, Phil orders Cathy to manipulate Brian into murdering Adam by suffocating him with a plastic bag. Phil justifies this by saying it’s the only way they won’t get into trouble over the cover-up of his disappearance.
Scene 4 (A Field)Phil and Leah sit in silence. Phil offers Leah a sweet and puts his arm around her, but she storms off in tears, ignoring Phil as he calls her back.

Act 3 summary

In a shocking turn of events, Adam is found alive but with no memory of his past. As the group converges in the woods, Phil orchestrates a grim plan to silence Adam permanently to protect their secret, pushing them to even darker depths of morality and cruelty.

Act 4

Scene 1 (A street)Jan reacts to the news from Mark that Leah has left the school and the gang. Jan asks if Phil knows about this, but Mark doesn’t answer.
Scene 2 (A Field)Richard sits next to a silent Phil, who is – for once – not eating. As Leah had done before him, Richard tries unsuccessfully to get Phil’s attention.

It is revealed that Phil has left the gang and Cathy now rules with violence and criminality. Meanwhile, Jan and Mark are thriving in the gang as shoplifters, while Lou is Cathy’s best friend. Away from the gang, Danny is doing dentistry work experience, Brian is on the verge of being sectioned because of his mental decline, and John Tate has “found God”, becoming an evangelist.

Richard begs Phil to return to the gang, and talks about alien lifeforms, but Phil doesn’t respond to anything he says. They sit together in silence.

Act summary

The gang undergoes a series of transformations and shifts in power, with many members spiralling further into guilt, fear and instability.

As Phil isolates himself, Cathy rises as a violent and ruthless leader, and the group experiences both departures and changes in allegiance. The act showcases the crumbling dynamics of the gang and the toll their actions have taken on each member.

List of Characters

To give you some more context, here’s the list of all the characters:

  • Adam – A boy who initially wanted to join the teenage gang and was subjected to a hazing ritual that led to his assumed death. Later it is revealed that he survived but lost his memory.
  • Phil – A prominent member of the gang, initially silent but later takes charge in planning the cover-up of Adam’s disappearance. He becomes a strategic leader but ultimately leaves the gang, distressed by the events.
  • Leah – Phil’s girlfriend who often engages in deep, one-sided conversations with him, expressing her insecurities and fears. She is fearful of the consequences of the gang’s actions and ultimately threatens to leave Phil.
  • Cathy – A gang member who enjoys the thrill of the cover-up. She takes the initiative in framing an innocent postman for Adam’s disappearance and later becomes a ruthless leader of the gang.
  • Jan – A gang member who is often seen reacting to news and developments regarding the crime and its cover-up, usually in conversations with Mark.
  • Mark – Another gang member who shares news and updates with Jan regarding the unfolding events.
  • John Tate – Initially the leader of the gang, he tries to take control of the situation following Adam’s death but finds himself too stressed to think straight. He undergoes a mental breakdown as the story progresses.
  • Brian – A gang member who is distressed by Adam’s death and suggests confessing to the authorities. Later, he is coerced to go along with Phil’s cover-up plan under threat from Phil.
  • Richard – A gang member who confronts John Tate in an early scene, and later attempts to engage Phil in conversation about alien lifeforms when Phil has left the gang.
  • Danny – A gang member who reports the arrest of an innocent man who fits the description of the fictitious kidnapper. Later, he distances himself from the gang and takes up dentistry work experience.
  • Lou – A gang member mentioned to have become Cathy’s best friend as Cathy takes over the leadership of the gang.