Features Essays Published 24 February 2015

Heavy Metal

Stewart Pringle on Beckett, tribalism, and why the best theatre is a bit like Cradle of Filth.
Stewart Pringle

I was talking about Beckett recently, with Matt Trueman. We were talking about the fact that Matt doesn’t really feel like he gets Beckett. He’s talked about it brilliantly himself, so you don’t need to take my word for it. But we were talking specifically about what makes you get him. The moment where you go ‘oh, okay, this is totally worth my time, I’ll have a right old think about this’. And why you would ever even bother.

The best answer I had then, and have now, is that when I was about 16 years old Beckett seemed cool. Like, really cool. And it wasn’t because he was a super respected playwright, or because the rest of my Drama class was into him, though I’m sure that all helped. It was because he’d written a play called Endgame which featured a blind dude sitting in a chair, served by a crook-backed oddity in a nuclear wasteland from the unthinkably distant future, chatting about the fact that God didn’t exist. And that was just super cool. Because I didn’t have much time for god (dropped the capital, see?), and I totally loved the weird and the broken and the impossibly distant future. And that’s because I loved Slayer. And Nine Inch Nails. Because I spent way more time thinking about Cradle of Filth than I did thinking about pretty much anything else. It was because I loved metal, and I loved Goth. And because I loved both of those things, and still do, I love theatre.

hmMy old tutor is a guy called Tom MacFaul. He is just a super expert on everything: he’s one of those. He has written books on Shakespeare, and on Restoration drama, and all sorts of stuff. He’s one of the most brilliant people I ever hope to meet. And what got him into literature? What ignited that first spark? ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Not the poem, you cunts – the 14 minute Iron Maiden track. The set-closing sing-a-long epic from Powerslave. Because you can’t head-bang to Coleridge. And if you can’t head-bang to it, I don’t know what you’re doing with it anyway.

There’s been a lot said about theatre and fandom recently, and about tribalism, but before there were tribes about Sean Holmes’ programming of a season, or Caroline Horton, there were way more important ones. They’re the ones I want to see in the theatres. When Chris Goode says ‘Fuck ’em’ or Jess Thom fires off some weird beauty in Biscuitland or it’s raining blood. I want to see the devil horns spring up. I want a bit of a mosh.

It’s not just about a personal vision of euphoria, either. Metal has so much more in common with theatre than just smacking the shit out of each other in the dark. It’s about telling stories with slightly more anger and slightly more sincerity than they really warrant. It’s about invoking the devil when you really mean your mum. It’s about hammer smashing a face when you’re really just sick to the living fuck of your boring, pointless job. It’s about shouting louder than you need to, and refusing to give up or grow old gracefully.

It’s also about richness. Metal isn’t afraid to tell stories. Metal doesn’t wink at everything. This whole new sincerity movement in theatre – Metal was there decades ago. Prog might have been telling the stories, but Ronnie James Dio was screaming them. Tom Stoppard might be worried that we’re just not up to The Hard Problem but have a go at getting to the bottom of Tool’s Ã†nema  without a bit of Jung under your belt. Without a smattering of cold war politics Sisters of Mercy just look a bit Russia-fixated and gloomy.

It’s a shelter for freaks and geeks. Have you been to a press night? Have you been in a dressing room? Next week Jude Christian opens Harajuku Girls at the Finborough, and I can’t wait to see it. But as cool as Cosplay is (and it’s very cool) it’s just a slightly more outré version of the thing that curled its way out of the Scala the last time Opeth hit town.

This isn’t news, of course. Theatre is well aware of this. #TORYCORE  brought together a load of the best people in the world to play the Conservative manifesto against a grindcore backcloth. Ontoerend Goed have been using Lightning Bolt for years. But it still feels like there’s a bit of a gap. DIY theatre cosies up with DIY sounds so damn cosily, it can sometimes feel like the corpse painted dragon riders are left out in the cold.

This all came to a head a bit for me with Songs of Lear. Or, more specifically, Megan’s piece on it or more specifically, this comment ‘Imagine if they did this with Metallica. That would be fucking AWESOME.’ And I’m not sure I entirely agree, because the last time Metallica met ‘music people’ it was anything but ‘fucking AWESOME’ . But the point still holds.

There are things about Metal and environs that just aren’t cool. It’s too often heteronormative, exclusionary and dense with dickheads. But as an arena where fists are pumped to the devil, and the worst is always yet to come, it feels like a pretty good primer.

Megadeth. Theatre 101.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.