By Elise Garcon
“Degenerate” opens Durham Drama Festival with an intense and dark portrayal of a strange future, where identity is cause for imprisonment. Ben Smart plays D, a prisoner who has been allowed to speak to us, the general public, about how they came to be. Although a little repetitive, the show is a poignant and convincing watch.
Written and directed by H.M.F. Jenkins, the piece begins in a bare attic, with just a bed and a telephone, bordered by a line of fluorescent tape. D is crouched in the centre, their back to us, which perfectly represents their isolation. Despite the challenges of distanced theatre, the set is impressive, and clearly establishes the situation the character is in.
The play begins with a robotic speech warning us of the danger of “the Degenerate”, imploring us to “stay behind the line at all times”. After a pause, Ben Smart brings D to life in a burst of energy and nervousness, contradicting the voice and reassuring the audience that he is harmless. In a stumbling torrent of words, he explains the meaning of “Degenerate”, establishing a believable character, who has been isolated from society for an unimaginable amount of time. The costume, a white jumpsuit with a red “D” upon it, alludes to The Scarlet Letter, and hints towards the nature of D’s past crimes. From the start, writer H.M.F Jenkins sets D at odds with the state, a force that is only vaguely mentioned, but extends power through the ringing of the phone multiple times throughout the play. This break in the flow of the monologue is ominous, underscored by Smart’s reaction to this, switching from animated, though slightly unhinged, to pleading.
Jenkins’ writing touches upon complex themes, and Smart executes these well, contemplating the loneliness of D’s situation, and of innate evil. “Degenerate” is well directed by Jenkins and assistant Saniya Saraf, especially toward the middle of the play, as D becomes more contemplative. The strange camera movements and framing of the shot distracted attention from the show itself, but this could well have been the teething issues that inevitably come with online theatre.
Smart’s performance is engaging, and sustains the audience throughout the hour-long monologue, even as the writing begins to become repetitive near the end of the play. D recounts the life that led to their situation in a section that builds his character and creates an emotional peak. Smart deals with this expertly, expressing love through the bitter lens of a character taken away from this. The section after this seems to revisit themes that have already been covered in the first half of the play, and though this could present D’s slight madness, it has the unfortunate effect of losing audience’s attention. The restrictive society that the play is set in limits how much Jenkins can develop D’s situation, and this is seen slightly here. They manage to develop D’s character well despite this, describing their obsession with the dictionary and etymology of words, giving small glimpses into their character before the loss of sanity due to their isolation.
The play picks up toward the end, and D’s outburst and subsequent punishment wraps up the themes of the play. The physical acting at the end of the play is refreshing and well directed, and Smart executes this nicely, leaving us with a sad and poignant scene that mirrors the start.
You can stream the play here.
Image: Feather Theatre Company