Before I was bitten by the theatrebug, it was the world of spandex, ropes and trash-talking beefcakes that captured my adolescent imagination. No, not that kind of world (for shame!). I’m referring of course to the world of professional wrestling. When I was twelve-years-old, Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker were my pin-ups of choice, by fourteen it was The Rock and Mankind. When I wasn’t gripped to the T.V, my brother and I would sweep away the lounge furniture and body slam each either until one of us got a black-eye or our long suffering mother told us both off. The point is, for a good few years, I was hooked; wrestling, in all it’s high-octane and melodramatic glory was my first real taste of theatre.
In Mike Stone’s play Lardo – the 58-year-old playwright’s debut for the Old Red Lion – theatre audiences will have the chance to get up close and personal with the sweat-stained arena of the wrestling ring as they follow Lardo’s meteoric rise from hungry amateur to superstar wrestling phenomenon through Tartan Wrestling Madness. Lardo first began life as dissertation project when Stone attended Dan Reballato’s Playwriting MA at Royal Holloway University.
What was the initial thinking behind a play about the world of professional wrestling?
Mike Stone: I wasn’t a big wrestling fan or anything like that. But I became aware of what was going on, particularly in Scotland and the whole scene developing over the last four or five years. There were a lot of young kids getting involved and making stars of themselves. It’s very different from the old-fashioned styles of wrestling. It feels more like a football crowd really. There are lots of head bangers. No actual violence, but plenty of mock violence.
Other plays in the past have sought to use the wrestling ring as a metaphor for something else. Is this what you are doing with Lardo, or something different?
Mike: When I began looking into wrestling I thought it was an interesting world because of the young people going through it; the instant celebrity and the ways in which social media is used to construct a persona. I am old enough to remember how in the old days they’d set up a fight by grabbing the microphone and sort of dissing each other. Now they do it by video, promos, Facebook and Twitter. Secondly, there is the theatricality of wrestling. When I begun investigating it I realized they take their characters very seriously. There’s this thing called “Kafabe”, which is this expression they use about not breaking character. So even when they’re in the promos it’s really important to still be in character and not to break it during the fight. So, I realized that this has a lot of resonance with the world of theatre and the construction of character and persona. It’s also a very humorous world; there is lot possibilities for slapstick and humor. Lardo is definitely not a play about two people in a flat in Islington!
Wrestling is a weird mixture of extreme melodrama, hyper-aggression and full on fighting. How have you sought to capture the atmosphere of the wrestling arena in the performance?
Mike: I think when you walk into wrestling arena it feels like nothing else. The audiences abuse the wrestlers, the wrestlers abuse them, but obviously all of this happens in the full knowledge that the wrestler isn’t going to come down and thump you! It’s this pretense of existing in a kind of cartoon world. I don’t know many other things that do that for people. It’s not like that if you go to a football match, for example. I think it’s quite unique. We’ve tried to recapture some of that in the way we’ve staged it. I don’t know how much we’ll get the crowd involved, but I think it’s quite good for a theatre crowd to be slightly on edge like that. We decided there needed to be bouts and real storylines in the ring. We worked with Henry Deevas, who was an ex-wrestler and is now an actor. We tried as far as possible to make it feel real and the actors have been amazing in terms of how quickly they picked it up. The ring really does dominate the stage; it’s been fun seeing what you can do with that, making it into other things. So, by subterfuge we get the theatre audience to a wrestling match.
The analogy between performance and wrestling is an interesting one. The simulated forms of violence found in professional wrestling are clearly very carefully choreographed. But there are still psychological and physical repercussions involved. Is this something you’ve sought to explore in Lardo?
Mike Stone: They all claim that the violence is fake, but I do actually wonder about what sort of repercussions come out of that. Because it’s glamorizing violence and one of the things that happens when Lardo joins Tartan Wrestling Madness is that it all starts out fine, but the proprietor starts dialing it up; he wants more of the so-called ‘fake-violence’ to become actual violence. The question is: what happens if the person in charge is someone who gets off on this and the crowd gets off on this? But I’ve been really keen not to judge the wrestling world; there are so many positive things about it, particularly for those kids getting into it; a sense of community, sense of purpose, celebrity. The characters are like an old fashioned, Dickensian circus troop; there’s an emotional loyalty. They’ll bash each other over the head then go to the pub and get blasted with their mates!
Main image: Anna Soderblom
Lardo is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 3rd-28th March 2015