By Claire Warden
In 1957 Roland Barthes famously said, “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres”. In fact the histories of professional wrestling and theatre are deeply intertwined, from the music hall where wrestling pioneers such as George Hackenschmidt and Eugen Sandow plied their trade to the contemporary showbiz performance of the WWE.
Nick Ahad’s Glory, produced by Britain’s leading radical theater company Red Ladder in Spring 2019, both builds on this legacy and swerves it.
I caught it in Leeds, Red Ladder’s home city, in a dusty old industrial space, the Albion Electric Warehouse, which had been transformed into a chilly, rundown gym: no “grandiloquence” here! It tells the story of faded wrestling star Jim Glory, a bigoted but not entirely unlovable throwback to the days of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Under his wing he takes an unlikely trio of Dan (a Chinese British young man, fighting back against the racism he experiences in his father’s chip shop), Ben (an ex-squaddie, traumatized by his experiences in Afghanistan), and Sami (a Syrian refugee, who arrives in the UK having endured an unimaginably horrific journey). The three battle with each other, their desire to be wrestlers and, indeed, their own demons.
Glory is both all about wrestling and nothing about wrestling.
On the one hand, the actual physical combat in Glory is pretty impressive, orchestrated by fight director and wrestling fan Kevin McCurdy. Indeed, the Albion Electric Warehouse audience (predominantly theater rather than wrestling fans) was visibly shocked at the brutal slams and punches. Glory also confirmed wrestling’s theatricality: its liminal identity as both a sport and not a sport, a theatrical spectacle and not a theatrical spectacle. At one point Jim turns to the predominantly artsy crowd and claims wrestling as “our Uncle Vanya”; the “our” here connotes Northern working class, perhaps male and white. Glory, and I suggest professional wrestling more generally, confronts what we define as art, as theater, as legitimate.
But wrestling also makes for a compelling backdrop for Glory.
During its history, wrestling has both validated offensive racial stereotypes and challenged them. Glory uses this tension. Director Rod Dixon, to whom I chatted before the show, cites the unique actor-audience interaction of professional wrestling, which makes it the perfect “vehicle to challenge the refugee narrative.” An uncomfortable example: Jim grabs the mic and makes up a story about Sami coming to “take your jobs and your women.” He tries to lead the audience in a chant of “Send him back, Send him back.” This deeply provocative moment exploits the fact that there is no fourth wall in wrestling, jolting audience members to have the shock of experiencing narratives currently advocated by mainstream British newspapers.
When I asked him to define Glory’s genre, Dixon described it as a “State of the Nation comedy,” and certainly in these uncertain times, seemingly defined by discord — particularly racial discord — the tough, challenging Glory stands as both a depressing revelation of Britain’s endemic bigotry and a hopeful beacon of potential friendship.
Watching Glory, it occurred to me afresh that the most beautiful thing about professional wrestling, despite its appearance, is its reliance on cooperation and collaboration. The Squared Circle is a space of learning and meeting. For Ben, Dan and Sami, wrestling provides a forum to overcome xenophobic prejudices and deal with their histories. Watching them celebrate in the ring at the end, I left feeling that wrestling might symbolize some political hope in troubled times.
For more on the production, including images, visit http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/glory.