Based on the novel by Trainspotting's Irvine Welsh, Filth is an angry, powerful piece of theatre, making it an apt choice for a company called Shouting in the Evening. A one man show, it's essentially the apologia of a rather unappealing character, the boorish, self-righteous and corrupt Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (Matt Wilson), although it's less a plea for understanding than a defiant diatribe.
Robertson is not an epic anti-hero in the vein of Sweeney Todd (one of Shouting's previous productions, is a theme emerging?); he's more your run-of-the-mill scumbag, with ordinary concerns, like an estranged wife, health problems and trying to get ahead in his career. The story's framework is a murder investigation, a racially motivated crime, but this is an excuse for what is really a prolonged rant interspersed with confrontations with colleagues and suspects and various drunken interludes.
Filth wants to shock. Full of visceral excess, it deals at length with the irritations of the flesh: scratching eczema, farting, belching, masturbating, eating voraciously, snorting drugs. Robertson seems to subsist entirely on old sausage rolls and things called 'gala pies', fiery curries and whiskey. The stage is littered with the debris of his life (old takeaway coffees, dirty laundry, empty bottles): in short, he lives like a pig. But this isn't the part that actually shocks, nor is Robertson's crude language, racism, appalling attitude to women or substandard hygiene. The most shocking thing about Filth is its bleakness. While there are many moments of humour – and characters like dopey friend, Bladesy (represented by a sock puppet, a nice touch), a policewoman conducting sensitivity training for the detectives (to scant effect of course) and Robertson's own tapeworm (surprisingly opinionated for an intestinal parasite) are amusing – Filth is a deeply pessimistic work.
Perhaps it's a mistake of this production, directed by Sara Brown and Scott Farrow, that we see Robertson's intensity right from the first. He's actually a rather witty fellow (with a penchant for Scottish rhyming slang). Charming even, if you can overlook the misanthropic taint to his every utterance, but we don't get a chance to warm to him because we know right away that he's a dangerous man. This diminishes connection to the story and gives less impact to later revelations.
The transition from fiction to theatre presents some unique problems for this sort of material. In reading about someone like Robertson you can distance yourself a little from the character's more heinous qualities, you can smile at remarks that would seem horrifying spoken aloud. Convincingly portrayed as he is here, you can't escape Robertson's arrogance and nasty cynicism, and some of the things he says make you hardly care if he lives or dies.
There are glimmers of hope to relieve the gloom. At one point, Robertson tries to save a dying stranger in the street and reacts to the incident with sudden, inexplicable grief. Later, there's insight into his childhood, and if that doesn't bring out audience sympathy nothing will. However these scenes seem isolated, out of step, as Robertson reverts to type again and again, apparently with no residual effects. Not that such contradictions are implausible, for they're surely the sort of paradoxes that make drama itself worthwhile, but here the transitions seem perfunctory. The use of overbearing music in the redemptive scenes (as though the audience can't be trusted to draw the right conclusions) doesn't help.
Occasionally the plot becomes obscured, with moments that rely on identity confusion insufficiently set up. For instance, when Robertson assumes a female persona the outfit he chooses is so old-fashioned that it seems he's playing an older woman (his mother?), which turns out to be misdirection. It's easy to get confused when you have one actor playing all the characters – and sometimes playing characters pretending to be other characters; sometimes figments of the imagination and sometimes not. This sort of thing is easily delineated in fiction but, again, becomes a trickier proposition in theatre. This stage adaptation, by Harry Gibson is very clever but it’s also very complicated; perhaps excessively so.
Still, Wilson's performance is compelling enough to overcome most of these flaws and the show, running more than two hours, moves along energetically. Playing around 30 roles, Wilson's ability to switch effortlessly between characters, making each one distinct and memorable while adopting a variety of accents, is nothing short of an incredible feat. His Scottish brogue is believable but, thankfully, not too thick. He tackles the considerable challenges of the role with gusto and creates a unique and detailed world. The potency of Robertson's milieu is this production's strength, compensating for some of the text's philosophical deficiencies.
Centring a play (or a novel) around a character like Bruce Robertson is undoubtedly a provocative act. There's a goading quality to Filth, as though the author is saying: This is how the other half live, so deal with it. This may be Irvine Welsh's stock in trade but, really, does it amount to much more than pointing out that life is tough for those at the bottom of the heap? (hard to argue with but not exactly a revolutionary notion). Welsh's writing is verbose, vulgar and funny, but none of this can mask the unpleasant taste left by Filth. It may be an acute and recognisable portrait but it's far from uplifting.
Robertson is a filthy guy, but you can't condemn him completely because he grew up in filth and he's surrounded by filth and it's all he knows. I'm reminded of Abel Ferrara's film Bad Lieutenant, which features a similar protagonist, a badly behaved and hard-living cop, and asks the same kind of questions: How should such a man be judged? According to the context that formed him? Or by his actions?
Shouting in the Evening presents
Based On The Novel By Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) | Adapted By Harry Gibson
Venue: The Peacock Theatre | Salamanca Arts Centre
Dates/Times: 8 - 23 Feb 2008 @ 8pm
Bookings: Centertainment 6234 5998 | www.centertainment.com.au