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Interview with Melanie Jordan on A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego

Melanie Jordan—acclaimed performer, director, and theatre maker—met with The Student through Zoom to discuss the relevancy of reviving A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego, digitally, feminist theatre, and comedy. She also has some great insights on getting into the theatre world and shining in your art form.

A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego by Jordan and Skinner was a multi-award-winning hit at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe. In it, Jordan plays the skittish lecturer Andrea, who lectures about historically fragile male figures and teaches the audience how to handle fragile male egos. It comes as a present surprise that the show is reviving in 2022.

When asked why the show is being brought to the screen, particularly at this time, Jordan starts by explaining the show’s conception in 2019. ‘The idea for the piece started a few years ago in the wake of the MeToo movement being very huge on social media.’ With it came a lot of ‘whataboutery’ and moments such as #notallmen made it seem like there was no way to have a conversation ‘without some egos getting rattled’. She says, ‘we presented the work in 2019; it felt like it was very topical then, like Prince Andrew was in the news for being awful, and now Prince Andrew is in the news for being awful, like these fragile male egos have not gone away, and if anything, we kind of see them breaking down at the minute more because they are being called out finally for all that awful behaviour that they’ve done through the years, that they think they could’ve got away with.’ 

She further elaborates that as she and Caitlin Skinner noticed that feminism becomes ‘actually populist’ and ‘popularist’, and the voices of women and minority genders becomes more powerful, with movements like The Women’s March and the vigil for Sarah Everard, ‘men we see on T.V. and also in my life, was struggling[…]it feels like, you know, the patriarchy has done a number on all of us and has set men up for failure as well; and a huge part of the show was me and Caitlin, who made the show together, questioning, like, whose responsibility is it to do the heavy lifting with this topic. Men are clearly struggling, you know, and male suicide is like the biggest killer of younger middle-aged men. At the moment, men’s mental health is poor […] I think that is a feminist problem as well.’ She explains that she and Skinner ‘make shows to kind of explore the stuff that we don’t know the answers to, I suppose, but the stuff that makes us angry, and we try to find a way through it through the work.’

As the conversation drifts to the political issues in her shows and productions, Jordan ponders, ‘I suppose it is at the heart of everything I do, really, because it is so important to me, but also, it’s important to me to have a sense of humour and find lightness and fun in all these very difficult, dark, hard, topics. So, it’s both political and silly; I think I exist somewhere between the two.’ They are undoubtedly central themes in her upcoming works, such as Shrill and ime Machine: A Radical Feminist Retelling from the End of The World (adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel), which explores the future of gender equality and feminism from an intersectional perspective. She had also worked with the Scottish Youth Theatre last year to explore climate justice.

When asked how comedy helps bring these issues to life, Jordan enthusiastically highlights its importance: ‘Oh my goodness I think it helps so much! […] when an audience is laughing, they relax, and then they’re […] in a better place to take on difficult things. But I also think it’s my approach, like when I come across a very difficult subject and if I’m in a very cerebral place, I find it hard to process it. There’s something about comedy that allows you to process it through the body and see it for its ridiculousness. Like often, these hard topics are ridiculous […] everything that’s happening in Westminster right now is ridiculous! It’s ridiculous that our prime minister is having parties when everyone else is at home. So, comedy feels like my way in to understand difficult things and then, I suppose, naturally that’s my approach to my art as well.’

Throughout the interview, it is apparent that Jordan carefully incorporated this awareness into the construction of Andrea. At the beginning of the interview, she explains, ‘Andrea, she’s a clown underneath that. She’s a clown, and she’s an innocent, really, and trying to understand all of this stuff, and she wears her vulnerability completely openly for the audience. So using these men through history felt like a way in for Andrea that wasn’t so challenging for her, because actually by the end of the show, she’s really challenged by these views, but she had to start at a point of innocence in order to get to the challenging part.’ Later in the interview, the art form of the clown is brought up again. ‘A clown is […] the lowest of the low. Like, they’ve got nothing to lose[…] The clown will just arrive, innocently, and not realise the consequences and therefore is able to really speak truth to power and highlight the, yeah, ridiculousness of a situation, so I think they are from a clown can be really powerful in political theatre.’

And when asked for advice for people at university going into theatre and finding their own specialty, Jordan says, ‘going into the arts is always hard, and I think it’s particularly hard at the minute, so I suppose, be kind to yourself is like the first thing.’ Then, it’s finding a voice through ‘making your own work’. It’s also helpful to find people that inspire you: ‘I’m so inspired by the people, the women mainly, that I work with […] I think as women we’re always kind of, well, we’ve been taught to be in competition with each other, which is ridiculous, and I think just to sort of turn that on its head […] I found that incredibly be helpful’. In a similar vein, watching ‘as much theatre as you possibly can’ to get inspired. Finally, ‘it’s about finding what you love about theatre or your art form. Because I’ve found throughout the years that, actually, what I love is creating. I love […] making the work, I love writing it, I love devising it […] find what you love in a process and then find a role that fits that.’

Image: Promotional Image for A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego, Jordan and Skinner, Courtesy of Storytelling PR ltd/A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego Press Kit