Middle Child company member and panto dame, Marc Graham, writes about one of the most popular forms of storytelling and theatre: wrestling.
“A showman par excellence,” exclaims The Promoter as the outsider makes his entrance. Music blares, his costume glitters in the lights, women scream. He’s cocky, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s sexy.
“The ladies love him, no doubt about that,” calls The Promoter as the performer lets two screeching teenage fans mob him. A 13 year old boy thrusts a plastic action figure into the face of this Heartbreaker, who takes it from the boy and drops it into his pants. The girls scream, the boy is disgusted, our Heartbreaker throws it back to the boy, and parts the two teenage girls with a kiss before entering Centre Stage. There’s a mixed reaction from the 11,000 strong audience. Fireworks erupt as he hits his signature pose. A few boos rain down. This isn’t his home turf; this is unfamiliar territory and it isn’t going to be his night.
Our Villain is established.
A brief silence befalls the crowd that September night in 1997.
Rule Britannia blasts through the PA. 11,000 people roar in unison. A man draped in a Union Jack makes his way down the Vom and he’s not alone. He’s accompanied by a woman, but she’s not a valet. She’s his sister, who, we are quickly informed, has been battling cancer her whole life. Tonight is dedicated to her. She joins her whole family, sitting front and centre. This man is big, powerful, a juggernaut. He wears European Gold around his waist and he is British, through and through.
We have Our Hero.
The show begins. Our Villain is outmatched for power in every early exchange. Our Hero grows in confidence and the sold out crowd are fully behind him, roaring at every moment that goes his way. The crowd begins to believe, even though some may have noticed Our Hero sporting a knee brace, but it is no cause for concern, everything is going to plan. Our Hero lifts his opponent over his head in a Gorilla Press, carries him to the edge of the ring and feigns as if to throw him stage right, then stage left. The Official seems worried and stops it happening, three times, before Our Hero unceremoniously dumps Our Villain on to the springed boards behind him, the safer option no less humiliating for Our Villain.
Our Hero is in full control. Occasionally he checks his knee, but he is firing on all cylinders. Our Villain is in real trouble here and it won’t be long before we’re all safely tucked up in our beds with beautiful memories of what we collectively witnessed in our own back garden.
“The advantage is with the Hero. He’s got the strength, he’s got the stamina, he’s got the advantage of all these home-town fans, he’s got his family here, including his sister, who he’s dedicated this match to, he cannot lose this,” The Promotor reminds the millions of subjects watching around the globe, but the crowd in this National Mecca are unable to hear.
A small fear creeps in as Our Villain gets back into this contest. But we needn’t have worried, as Our Hero hikes Our Villain into the air, pauses for 10 seconds allowing blood to rush to his head before bringing him down in freefall. A vintage move. Until…
The curtain flutters, a light is shone upon it. A suited stranger to these proceedings enters the fray, a player who is certainly not welcome here. This mysterious tall, dark and somewhat ravishing man quickly distracts the Official, trippingly on the apron. Our Hero stumbles into an unlit area of the stage and his face meets an exposed steel pillar courtesy of the Ravishing One, right in front of his family. The atmosphere darkens. Two boys from the crowd reach through the Fourth Wall to assure Our Hero he’s still loved. Our Hero is in trouble here, but despite the deck being stacked against him, he’s still putting up a big fight; he’s battling well, the home crowd spurring him on. There’s light at the end of this tunnel yet.
Our Hero with Our Author, Marc Graham
Because of that…
The curtain twitches again. This time two more Unwelcome figures come forward. The crowd are familiar with these two: a man and a woman, the former born into unimaginable privilege, the latter quite simply the 9th Wonder of the World.
Despite all of this Our Hero gets a second wind, giving it all he has. Against these odds he is triumphing. Our Hero hoists Our Villain up. We’ve seen this before, a move there is no coming back from, here we go! Wait a minute: the Ravishing One has grabbed Our Hero’s leg, preventing him from carrying out the move! There’s an altercation. The Official is distracted by the two Unwelcome figures. Behind the Official’s back Our Hero lifts Our Villain up again, this time outside the safety of the ring but no! No! Our Hero slips, catches his leg, the knee in the brace, between the barrier and the ring. Our Hero collapses in a heap and Our Villain re-enters, Centre Stage, pulling the Official with him. Our Hero, trapped, is at the mercy of the Unwelcome, who ram the Fourth Wall into his knee. The gallant crowd try to prize the Fourth Wall back to help Our Hero, but there is no matching the strength of the Unwelcome. This is really bad. An angry nine year old is told to stay away by an adult. He is foaming at the mouth, eager to jump the rail and enter to save Our Hero.
Because of that…
Our Hero is thrown back onto stage. Our Villain removes Our Hero’s knee brace AND THROWS IT INTO THE FACE OF HIS WIFE AND CANCER-BATTLING SISTER IN THE FRONT ROW.
Our Villain applies the Figure-Four Leg Lock, a hold so devastating it has injured countless children on school playgrounds across the land. The crowd are standing, shocked, broken, nails-bitten. Some children are crying; some adults are crying.
“Our Hero is screaming in pain, his mouth is bleeding, Our Villain has the figure-four!” The Promoter exalts.
Our Villain illegally reaches for one of the Unwelcome, adding more leverage, more pressure, more pain to the hold on Our Hero. The Official cannot see this. His main concern is for Our Hero, who’s never been in so much pain. The Unwelcome surround the stage. The Official can not possibly see everything now, the story is not supposed to end like this.
Our Hero doesn’t quit, but the Official stops the show. There’s confusion, a bell rings, we didn’t see Our Hero quit, Our Villain is calling for someone to hand him the Gold, people are booing, they begin to throw debris onto the stage, empty food packets, piss in plastic cups.
The Announcer states: “The winner of this contest and New Eur-”
A cacophony of boos fill the Mecca, the Announcer is hit with debris and his announcement cut short. The European Gold he entered with will be going home with Our Villain. Rubbish from all angles flies towards the ring.
The contest is over. Our Villain grabs a microphone.
“Alright, all you Limeys. I want you to take a look at your champion and then take a look at the new Grand Slam winner. Hart family, this is for you. And Diana Smith, my sweetheart, this one is especially for you, baby.”
Our Villain, The Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels, applies the figure-four again to Our Hero, Davey Boy Smith, affectionately known as The British Bulldog. The Privileged One shoves the microphone into the face of Our Hero: “Scream for your country. Scream for your country, Bulldog! Come on!”
The stage strewn with debris from the crowd, his wife enters the stage with the knee brace and chokes Our Villain with it, releasing Our Hero from the hold.
Our Villain and the Unwelcome begin to leave. This is a chaotic scene. They are jubilant as their Symphony plays and Our Villain is carried out by his minions, holding his new European gold up high. Inciting a riot is absolutely what they did on this night in Birmingham. Every bit of debris that hits them on their way out they take in their stride. They’re spat on, abused, physically hit when they get too close to the crowd. They flaunt at the top of the ramp and cockily bat away bottles that are on target to hit their faces.
Our Hero has fallen. He is hurt, he remains centre stage, his wife in tears by his side. Those who aren’t full of rage in the crowd are shedding a tear, but no one can bare to leave. This can’t be how it ends? Can it? In our own back garden we’ve witnessed the fall of our only hope, not one person will sleep peacefully tonight, this anger will permeate for decades to come.
This was pure Theatre.
A tragedy. This match alone a five act structure.
This match happened at WWF’s One Night Only at the Birmingham NEC, 20th September 1997. An event both Middle Child artistic director, Paul Smith, and myself were at. We also both agree: this was one of the greatest theatrical events we’ve ever seen.
This year Equity recognised Professional Wrestling for the first time.
“Professional wrestlers are highly skilled performers deserving of recognition and the support that Equity, the union for the entertainment industry, can provide. Professional wrestling combines aspects of acting, dance, physical theatre and circus […] The work is precarious, often low paid and physically demanding. Equity believes wrestlers are entitled to the same protections and entitlements that other professional performers experience at work and it is our ambition to engage with promoters across the UK to achieve this.
This is good. However an announcement like this would once have been met with derision. Wrestling once held a fiercely guarded secret: that wrestling wasn’t real. This was a secret so heavily guarded that real life brothers Owen and Bret Hart, when feuding in 1994, were never allowed to be seen in public together. They even had to leave the arena in different cars. That’s like Cinderella and her Evil Stepmother not being allowed to be seen in the bar together after the show. That’s commitment.
Above is Dr Schultz’ thoughts. Pure method acting, he doesn’t break character for a second. This was something he was allegedly told to do by his boss, Vince McMahon, and then when he did it he legit got fired for it. Irish wrestler Dave Finlay used to dislocate the thumb of anyone who dared to ask him if he wrestling was fake.
Question: Isn’t it all fake?
The physical damage is real. Each move requires a taxing physicality from both wrestlers. Falling repeatedly on your head, back, shoulder, coccyx takes its toll. Falling 15ft onto concrete, ladders, flaming tables, barbed wire, razor blades, breeze blocks, light tubes, broken glass, steel and plastic chairs, also take its toll. Let’s equate this to an actor in a stage fight every night, falling on the same elbow over and over. You’re gonna need an elbow pad. Or the physical toll a dance takes on a performer. Unfortunately, wrestlers have lost their lives in the ring. Things do go wrong: necks, backs, knees. Surgery is an occupational hazard and as long as that list is, it’s not quite as long as the list of wrestlers that die from heart attack before they turn 65 or have severe lifelong head trauma as a result of multiple concussions.
The schedule is relentless – often wrestling six times a week in six different towns. And you drive yourself in between. Ever toured in a van?
Sometimes it is absolutely real: look up the Montreal Screwjob. Jobs, livings and livelihoods were lost. Never have one too many beers and think about stepping into the ring with wrestlers, it doesn’t end well.
Question: Is it scripted who is to win and lose?
Yes. It is. However, wrestlers get to the top of the game because they have deserved to get there, with the exception of Roman Reigns and John Cena. The years of sacrifice and struggle, the countless hours of training they put into crafting their character, promos or talking into the microphone are as vital to professional wrestling as work in the ring.
Question: Isn’t it for kids?
Sometimes. Wrestling goes through stages. In the 1990s no, absolutely not, and that’s why many other kids and I loved it. Then in the 2000s mainstream wrestling went through a PG period, which resulted in some of the most dull and boring bouts you’ve ever seen.
There is also a panto thing going on. Some is for kids, some is for adults and it goes over the kids’ heads. There is a beautiful moment when you realise this in adolescence and the thrill of it now is, if they can still do moves that make adults wince, despite everything we consume about its theatrical nature, then that is magic. That is really no different to being moved by a performance or a beautiful moment in theatre – we all know it’s not real. I believe it’s called the suspension of belief/disbelief.
Question: Isn’t the acting terrible?
Sometimes yes, but tell me you’ve never been to the theatre and had the same thought.
Here’s one of the best:
Question: Isn’t it violent?
It’s hilarious too, watch this:
But yes also incredibly violent. The following video features the highest paid actor in the world right now. It’s also difficult to watch, knowing what we now do about head injuries.
Question: Are wrestlers better at stage combat? Specifically knaps?
But seriously here’s the best knap in the game.
Question: Is it a struggle to break down the (fourth) wall?
Search for any promo from Chris Jericho.
Question: Does wrestling reach wider and more diverse audiences?
Wrestlers are a very real embodiment of “Find something you love and let it kill you.” When we say that we should be reminded of this: they sacrifice their health and well being for their audience. For that you have to respect them.
Try something for me? Next time you see some theatre try saying to the person next to you at the end of the show: “It’s all fake you know?” Let me know their response.
See Marc Graham as Pattie Breadcake in The Little Mermaid from 19-29th December, where he may try some figure-four leg locks – when the director isn’t looking.
Vom – Entrance ramp
Centre Stage – The ring
Stage Left – Outside the ring to the left
Stage Right – Outside the ring to the right
The Promoter – The commentator
Fourth Wall – The safety rail
The Official – Referee
Our Hero, The Face – Wrestling term for ‘Good Guy’
Our Villain, The Heel – Wrestling term for ‘Bad Guy’
The Unwelcome – Outside interference
The Privileged One – A wrestler known as Hunter Hearst Helmsley aka HHH
The Ravishing One – A wrestler known as Ravishing Rick Rude
The 9th Wonder of the World – A female wrestler known as Chyna
European Gold – WWF European Heavyweight Champion title
National Mecca – Birmingham NEC
The Announcer – Ring announcer
Symphony – Theme music
WWF – World Wrestling Federation aka WWE
Part of the story line – Kayfabe
Woooooooooooooo – Ric Flair’s famous catchphrase