Andrea from the Society of Men’s Universal Truth, SMUT for short, is giving a lecture. Things aren’t going quite as planned – previously her talks have been marred by pesky protesters and she is hoping that the enlightened folk at Edinburgh Fringe will give her a chance. She alerts us to a serious malady affecting half of the UK’s population, in A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego.
Andrea, played by the talented Melanie Jordan, appears to us as a nervous, bobbing lecturer, before transforming into a plethora of famous men with even more famous egos. We’re treated to cameos from Julius Caesar, Sigmund Freud, José Mourinho, William Wallace and more. There are some gorgeously funny moments. Jordan engages in admirable ad lib with the front row. We are regaled with the history of the overhead projector, mansplained at length to us by an overbearing work colleague. In another hilarious moment, she summarises the difference between male and female experience in thirty seconds – using a sponge, a balloon and… a little prick.
Twenty minutes into proceedings we experience something of a shift in gear. A perky Me and My Girl style cockney youth is pondering his place in a world of rapidly changing social dynamics. Where does he fit in within the context of evolving gender politics? As his thoughts on equality extrapolate he suggests, alarmingly, that in a world where men and women are equal – surely a punch must be met with another punch? An eye for an eye? In a heart-breaking moment, he reflects that, as his identity and reason for being slips away from him, it might just be easier to end it all.
This show, presented by the award-winning Jordan and Skinner, refuses to dilute the age-old complexities between men and women. The audience is largely left to draw its own conclusions. Andrea perseveres stoically, smiling maniacally at us as her lecture falls apart. Ultimately she is left, baton waving, a grin pasted across her face, as more and more questions become unanswerable.
The real strength of this show is in how it embraces dichotomy. The male ego gets a thorough lampooning as women are reminded, tongue-in-cheek, to support and nourish their men, selflessly. They must be universally understanding and should never, under any circumstances, embarrass the boys. On the other side of the coin, we are presented with the supposed advantages of adhering to the familiar, ‘reassuring’ but outdated and unfair norms. In one poignant scene a daughter is trying to communicate with her father. They find it impossible to relate and so she almost begs to be allowed to cook and clean. In doing so, she can climb out of a stagnant, non-responsive relationship.
There are moments, particularly in the beginning, that could be tighter, and the show will no doubt be edited as their run continues. However, there is a lot of promising work here and we are aware there are no easy fixes to ancient problems. As we leave we are left to think, no longer unkindly, about the fragility of men. We are also thinking of the consequences for women – their vulnerability and, yes, their fragility too.
A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego is playing at The Pleasance Dome until 26 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.