To prepare for his play Wrestling, Rob Drummond quit drinking, got in shape and entered a world caught between theatre and sport
IN THE corner of a wrestling ring, Rob Drummond balances on the highest rope. Teetering slightly, he raises his hands in a gesture of triumph to the (imaginary) crowd and jumps. He lands - bang! - on his elbows and knees in the middle of the ring.
In wrestling terms, this is known as a "splash". The assorted watchers in the rehearsal room at the Arches wince, but Rob picks himself up and climbs back up the ropes for another go. Doesn't it hurt? I ask him, about ten splashes later. "Not as much as it looks like it does. If I'd done that in week one I wouldn't have been able to move, but your body gets used to the pain and exertion, it's amazing how your body adapts and gets on with it."
Drummond has been training as a wrestler for the last five months in order to make his new show Rob Drummond: Wrestling, though whether he will appear in it as a wrestler is being kept a closely guarded secret.
What is undeniable, however, is that the rehearsal space feels more like a backstreet gym than a theatre. The room is littered with discarded T-shirts and energy drinks cans and smells of stale sweat and raw testosterone.
Joe Coffey ("The Mercenary"), a wrestler and personal trainer with Scottish Wrestling Alliance (SWA), is preparing for a warm-up with a medicine ball. He's throwing and catching it as though it were a beach ball but it actually weighs 7kg. Coach Damian O'Connor is waiting in the ring, while a small, slight man calling himself Wizard wears the black and white striped shirt of a referee. "You know they always choose referees for their size?" says Drummond. "It make the wrestlers look bigger."
Drummond and I adjourn to the Arches cafe bar, while people at neighbouring tables stare and point at his bright blue and red leggings, and tells me why he - a pacifist - is learning how to fight professionally. He has studiously avoided fights all his life, he says, but he has loved wrestling, ever since he first saw WWF on television at a friend's house when he was eight years old.
"I hate fighting, I hate aggravation and conflict. But it bothers me the shame of not being able to say something to the bully or the person in the street who drops litter. I think there are a lot of men like me in modern society. I'm a pacifist, a feminist, but I'm a bit lost about what my role is, that's what the show's about." Then he laughs, apologises for sounding pompous and claims he's just "having a bit of fun".He wrote a "proper play" about wrestling a few years ago, but later decided that "the only way to respect it was to do it". The project got Vital Spark funding from Creative Scotland and the Arches involved award-winning documentary film-maker Lindsay Goodall to create a "making of the show" short film.
The show speaks to a current trend in experimental theatre which blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. Drummond's last show, Mr Write, for the National Theatre of Scotland, was written and performed by him but based on the story of a member of the audience, and in a previous show, Bullet Catch, he learned and performed a magic trick. It is reminiscent of Wall of Death, where performance artist Stephen Skrynka worked with the National Theatre of Scotland to master the fabled motorcycle stunt in the context of a performance.
When Drummond, 28, started training with SWA he had, by his own admission, not played sports regularly for ten years. "I had a bit of a beer belly on me, I'd let myself go, I was unfit, not looking or feeling my best. I quit drinking, I'm eating right and exercising, and who would have known? It helped. It's not like the Government hasn't been telling us that, and unfortunately they're right!"
Eating a high-protein diet and working out every day, Drummond was also able to draw on his skills as a theatre performer and was learning moves in the ring almost immediately. "But that didn't mean my body could handle the technical aspects. I didn't know the punishment I was putting my body through. On the third day of training I couldn't get out of bed. There is a breaking point, you either quit or go through it. The whole first month was pretty much hell, thinking, 'what have I let myself in for?' and realising that this was all voluntary, I'd asked for this, so feeling stupid as well as sore. I had no one to blame but myself."
After a couple of months his shoulders had filled out, and he was beginning to enjoy the sense of achievement. "I've got a very small frame, so I was never going to become Hulk Hogan. It's about setting attainable goals. I set myself the goal of doing this to a standard that's acceptable rather than trying to be the best wrestler that ever lived. I've got myself into the best shape I've ever been in my life.
"The idea of wrestling is to make it look more dangerous than it is," he says, while telling me about the partially dislocated elbow he acquired early on in training, and a fall last week which has left him with an impressive scar on the bridge of his nose.He pats his elbow and knee pads - "These things aren't for show."
A show about wrestling is bound to draw comparisons to the NTS's Beautiful Burnout, about young Scottish boxers, which was a hit on last year's Fringe and opens in New York later this month, Wrestling is very different. "I love Beautiful Burnout but when I saw it, it crystallised in my mind what I didn't want to do, which was to have a wrestling ring with people acting in it. Wrestling already is theatre, it's telling a story through movement. The wrestling section of the show will not be touched, it is theatre already."
A wrestling match has characters, a conflict, a narrative, a winner. Wrestlers must learn character, showmanship, how to take hold of the mic and win over a crowd. They carry Equity cards like actors. "To ask whether it is real or fake is an insufficient question," Drummond says. "We're actually running, falling - you can't fake falling on your back. Theatre is fake, you go and watch some guy who pretends to be the Prince of Denmark."
Damian O'Connor, head coach with the SWA, says he has learned a great deal from working with Drummond. "For me it's been a great experience, I've learned so much about the theatre world. As a live wrestler myself I've learned a lot about working crowds. A lot of my guys are excellent wrestlers, but might not have the showmanship that theatre offers. Rob's been really great, helped us with the showmanship aspect which is so important for wrestling. We're all actors to different degrees."
He believes that wrestling in Britain has come full circle. Like many in the sport, he talks wistfully about the early 1980s when audiences of 14 million turned on their televisions on Saturday afternoons to see Big Daddy fight Giant Haystacks, and a wrestling show could sell out Wembley. "Once Big Daddy couldn't really move any more, we were in the situation where WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and the big companies in America said: 'We'll give you our product for a lower cost'. It killed the industry here and it's taken 30 years for it to get back on its feet."
But he believes this is happening, with audiences growing all the time. SWA started out six years ago producing six shows a year; now it stages 35. The standard is improving and the fan base growing, and scouts from the American promoters are also taking an interest. O'Connor believes that within ten years, British wrestling will be back on TV.
Bringing wrestling into the theatre can only be good for the sport. Drummond thinks the play will offer a chance to bring together two very different audiences, wrestling fans and fans of contemporary theatre. "It's my dream to get these sets of diverse people in the same room," he says."What I'd love is that the wrestling fans appreciate the theatre and the theatre fans, while they might not enjoy the wrestling, would have a new perspective on it."
• Rob Drummond: Wrestling is at the Arches, Glasgow, tonight until 13 February, www.thearches.co.uk