'Matilda the Musical' playwright Dennis Kelly on his story about murder, being a high school dropout, and the secret within every play

'Matilda the Musical' playwright Dennis Kelly on his story about murder, being a high school dropout, and the secret within every play

Dennis Kelly has written some of the most popular stage productions of the decade. He tells us why he never lets circumstances get in the way of what he loves

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Students with Hong Kong Players will perform DNA this week.
Photo: Albert Cheung

They say a friend is someone who will help you move house, but a real friend is someone who will help you move a body – a theory the characters in Dennis Kelly’s play, DNA, find themselves testing.

The story follows a group of teenagers who are determined to get away with murder after the kid they were bullying is presumed dead. Kelly’s darkly comedic play was first staged at the National Theatre in London, Britain, and has since been performed in schools and youth theatres all over the world. Next week, DNA will also be performed by local theatre group, Hong Kong Players.

Before its Hong Kong premiere, Kelly – who also penned Matilda the Musical, a theatrical take on Roald Dahl’s classic book – took some time to chat with Young Post about what inspired him to write DNA and why he loves the theatre.


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“I was trying to figure out what happens if you put [a] group before [an] individual,” the Londoner. The play follows a group of young people lying for each other and finding unity in it. With this story, he felt he could explore whether it can ever be right to sacrifice an individual for  the many.

Kelly wrote his first play at 26.
Photo: Dennis Kelly

Another idea Kelly wanted to explore was how humans are more alike than we think, or want to believe. One of the ways he achieved that in DNA, which is part of the GCSE curriculum, was to make each of the characters playable as male or female.

“We focus a lot on the differences between us, but there’s something about jealousy, anger, fear, and love [that we all share],” he said.

DNA is not Kelly’s first play. When he was 26, he wrote Debris, a show in which two siblings try to make sense of their messy childhood. It was, he acknowledged, a play that was a long time in coming.


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“I left school at 16, and I had no real education,” he said. To fill his spare time after he left secondary school, a friend convinced him to take part in a local youth theatre every Thursday, which he grew to love and “live for”.

After he’d worked in a range of jobs, all of which he hated, Kelly decided to do something with his passion. He got a place to study drama and theatre arts at university at 29, proving it’s never too late to do what you love.

“What I liked about [studying at that age] was that I was young enough to still be interested in learning, but old enough to have a bit of life experience, and … be grateful for the opportunity to learn,” the scriptwriter said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It changed the way I think about a lot of things.”


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Kelly said that he thinks every good play out there contains a playwright’s secret, in one form  or another.

“There are things in life we don’t tell anyone because we’re scared of what [others] will think of us,” he explained. “I think, as a playwright, you can take those things and write them into a play.” Knowing that that play will be performed in front of a bunch of people you haven’t ever met, he added, is very freeing, and allows its writers to be direct.

Kelly also wrote Black Sea (2014), a British film directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Jude Law.

“Honesty is what gives a good drama its flesh and blood.”

Although DNA is the play most drama students will think of when his name is mentioned, Kelly is by no means content to ride on the coattails of its success. The writer is currently working on transforming Matilda the Musical into a film.


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When we asked him about the challenges of modifying a stage work for the big screen, Kelly said it was a struggle to think of questions to address that hadn’t already been answered in the play.

That’s because, he said, film is a much more realistic medium. You have to make sure the plot makes sense to the audience. Kelly said that he had just completed the first draft of the script, but didn’t reveal much more than that.

“At this point it’s so difficult to tell whether it’s any good or not … I often think you don’t really know whether it’s good until you see it [performed].”

Given the success and popularity of his work so far, we’re not too worried. 

The Hong Kong Players will be performing DNA at the Hong Kong Arts Centre May 9-13. For tickets, visit urbtix here. 

Edited by Ginny Wong

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The perils of playwriting

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