Sunday 20th August 2017 at Etcetera Theatre, London.
Skin and Bone Theatre’s Filth is an aptly named, rank firecracker of a show. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh and adapted by Harry Gibson, there’s no getting away from the fact that this play is tough to watch yet thoroughly captivating. Jake Francis’ performance is bold and commanding, taking to the stage for the duration as D.I.Robertson, a grim, potty-mouthed detective spewing every kind of filth imaginable; violent sex or co-erced underage sex acts, persistent, casual and venomous homophobia, gleeful misogyny and racism, and on and on… The content makes praise difficult, but the affecting nature of the piece demands respect. It’s blunt and defiantly, indulgently controversial, leaning heavily on the no-nonsense tone attached to an angry Scottish voice to force laughter amidst the shocking content. This play is a like watching a piranha couped up in a pint glass, lunging at anything close enough with the sole intent to bring destruction; it’s as far from pretty as possible – and not particularly enjoyable – but it’s thoroughly impressive to watch.
Jake Francis is a wonder; manic, mocking and mincing in turns as he switches momentarily to play the various loathsome characters Robertson meets in his daily life while never really understanding himself to be the most loathsome of them all. His energy is as jaw-dropping as the incessant shock tactics of the script, which is pretty hideous on the ear. The language is almost poetic at times, which only serves to highlight the grotesque contrast to most of the content, also providing an irksome reminder that despite his belligerent blinkered views of others, he’s a very intelligent man. The fact that Francis kept up the pace and intensity, with fiery, full speed ahead delivery throughout is perhaps the most impressive thing about this production. The thirty or so characters donned by Francis are just about discernible from one another, although they inevitably begin to merge as Robertson spins chaotically from past to present and his maniacal performance becomes increasingly difficult to focus on, yet impossible to look away from. Francis’ delivery of the story about Robertson’s brother is excellent, showing the conflict Robertson holds internally as he fights his emotions to remain the cock-sure big man for his audience – but it’s not enough to inspire more than fleeting pity.
This play pointedly puts a man bereft of conscience in a position of power – he’s on the police force. This allows his conduct, including the bribery of an underage girl into committing a sex act to secure his silence, to achieve maximum impact. Planting his sneering lecture, as a policeman, to the girl about her underage sexual relationship with her boyfriend in direct contrast with his subsequent repugnant actions perhaps holds satire – but too blinding is the shock and detestation for any lingering sense of political comment. Being abandoned by his significant other and rejecting any other kind of relationship with others, Robertson is left to play out his bitter, solitary daily life before us, including internal rage at work, simulated sex acts, graphic narration of bodily afflictions and multiple monologues of hate. There are moments in which we are invited to identify with some of Robertson’s many, many frustrations, such as his disdain for unnecessary training at work – but it would be cause for concern to identify too much with this character.
As our protagonist spirals ever closer to the self-destruct button, revelations about his life and past come hurtling along thick and fast, daring us to feel an ounce of sympathy despite what we’ve seen while making such a thing impossible. Regardless of the undeniably tragic revelations about Robertson’s childhood and the uncovered reasons for his unforgiving attitude to others, he remains loathsome. He is, it turns out, what he hates; it’s a classic dichotomy but it’s simply not possible to undo the damage of his performance over an hour and fifteen minutes of smut and immorality. There’s certainly a strong element of self-fulfilling prophecy to Robertson’s life, and the suitably shocking final scenes only serve to cement the view of this man as an unsalvageable, tormented soul with wit as his only saving grace, though the content of his humour dilutes even that strength considerably.
This is an affecting play with a deeply affecting performance from Francis – with the title of Filth, I expected to see something hard-hitting, but I was not expecting something quite so brutal and unrelenting as this. Although I can’t claim to have enjoyed it, it’s too obscene and too far over the line to be enjoyable for me, there’s no denying that I was morbidly drawn to the tale and hugely impressed with the performance. The fact that I had such a strong reaction to the character shows me that this performance is excellent in its brave lack of goodness; unless of course there is an intention to inspire some form of sympathy, in which case…I can’t be relied upon to showcase that success! There is no happy ending to Filth – nor is there an uplifted spirit to depart with- there are laughs, sure – the audacity of the man inspires incredulous laughter throughout, but this is a dark, polluted view of the world from a troubled soul. If you don’t mind seeing something which is primarily designed to shock and affect while only ever presenting the bad guy, this is well worth seeing – as is Francis’ fantastic, fearless performance. Just remember that there’s little light in this cavern of filth, with the totality of that darkness perhaps being at the root of what makes this a very, very powerful play.