On a cliff edge somewhere, a man is about to jump to his death when he is stopped by a psychology professor. To a soundtrack of shrill digital sounds and heavy breathing, what follows is a conversation scouring the deepest and darkest caverns of masculinity, trauma, faith and loneliness. At times moving and at others menacing, David Martin’s original script sees an enigmatic Svengali (Richard Miltiadis) rip into our vulnerable professor’s tempestuous past with ceaseless questioning. With heartbreaking, highly stylised reenactments, we discover the latter’s childhood bullying in a strict Catholic school, the crises in his family life as well as his professional downfall.
Fragile Man tackles a crucial issue, at a time when 76% of suicides in the UK are by young men
Miltiadis expertly vacillates between panic, anxiety, intimidation and rage; he is the source of the play’s vital, enduring tension. Martin, who plays the professor, conveys his character’s vulnerability and optimism with brilliant tact and subtlety, with a knowledge of the role that only he, the writer, could have. The audience sees an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a man worn to the core by society’s pressures on men and by the tragedy of broken social bonds. Every line he delivers is weighed down by the crushing weight of the past.
During the many flashbacks in the piece the two actors show their versatility, portraying children, monks, students and more, highlighting the gulf between boyhood and manhood, innocence and experience. The audience is shown a genealogy of fragility and breakdown, exploring what it really is that makes someone lose hope, and whether it’s possible to keep going afterwards. The question of whether one can truly know themself, and be comfortable with their identity, despite the disintegration of familial unity and their connection to others, is constantly and bravely investigated. Martin and Miltiadis effortlessly manoeuvre through gripping twists and emotional shifts together.
However, it is hard to leave Fragile Man without feeling overloaded with 3 plays’ worth of information, as Martin’s script strives frantically to cram too much into an intense 50 minutes. While the play’s discussion of masculinity and emotional breakdown is utterly compelling, several embryonic ideas are thrown in hurriedly and needlessly. There is a confusing question about the nature of time and human agency that is neither developed nor pursued, and seems like a trite attempt at further sophistication, when really there was enough there already. Though there are undoubtable moments of brilliance in the script, several platitudes and superfluous lines fatten and blunt certain scenes, muddling their structure and slightly dulling their effect. While some twists and revelations are enthralling there are simply too many, to the point where the audience may become desensitised and alienated from characters who they had developed an attachment to.
Fragile Man tackles a crucial issue, at a time when 76% of suicides in the UK are by young men, with suicide more likely to cause their death than cancer or road accidents. Male suicide is at its highest rate since the 1980s, and we need to ask why. Scrutinising what masculinity is, how damaging pressures, emotional repression and loneliness can be, is a vital and brave thing to do. However, the piece sadly detracts from its important core issues with a lack of sharp focus and a distaste for the power of simplicity.