Review: The First Modern Man

3 star rating
Jonathan Hansler brings to life Michel de Montaigne in a painstakingly devised monologue, revealing a unique 16th century French nobleman whose essays became hugely influential.
The First Modern Man at Hen and Chickens Theatre

Image: Hen and Chickens Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 2 March 2019

Michael Barry

Helen Niland


Jonathan Hansler as Michel de Montaigne


As a civilized sixteenth-century French aristocrat, you could live in cultured seclusion in your chateau.

You try it; it's not for you.

Your mind's too full of stuff.

You write down all those buzzing ideas: sex, thumbs, cannibals …

You oppose colonialist brutality (before the British got going with their empire); decry judicial torture (when it was standard practice); argue that persecuted 'witches' are innocent victims (when most saw them as worshippers of Satan); negotiate with kings during bloody civil wars; somehow get elected as mayor of Bordeaux while travelling; defend yourself against forces of the Inquisition; become the father of 'world' music - and love your cat.

Your contemporaries think you are odd (but Shakespeare likes you; so does Derren Brown).

And, by recording - as no-one before - the details of your life in witty, clever essays, you showed us how to be the heroes of our own modern lives - and became the ancestor of every article or blog which moans about the school run, love gone wrong, or just life …

Come and visit Michel de Montaigne.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 22 February 2019
Review star rating image

It's not often that we get detailed sets - or even a set at all - with small productions.

Sets have become so relatively rare in fringe venues that a man sitting next to me at a show some time ago bemoaned to his friend how he "longed to see a proper set in a show".

Of course, productions working on shoe-string budgets don't always have the necessary readies to be able to splash out on the materials and manpower required to create a set.

And, moreover, it's not always essential or even necessary to have a set in order to provide an appropriate vehicle for drama.

In this monologue we do get a set and a rather detailed one at that.

Jonathan Hansler as Michel de Montaigne in The First Modern Man

Photo: Jonathan Hansler as Michel de Montaigne

And looking at a photograph of the library on which the set is based, designer Piran Jeffcock has captured not just something that evokes the times in which this monologue is set, but also the reality of the place where the central character here lived and worked.

The character in question is French nobleman Michel de Montaigne, who may not be readily familiar to many.

I suspect that most of us brought up in the UK educational system have had little exposure to French history or the characters who peopled it - except perhaps the points at which French history collided with our own, especially during wars.

There's nothing, though, in The First Modern Man about wars with England, even if the principal character found himself involved in military conflicts.

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 and died in 1592.

To put that lifetime in context, it roughly equates to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England (give or take a few years either way).

Played here by Jonathan Hansler with affable and personable fluency, Michel de Montaigne was best known in his own lifetime as a statesman, but his real legacy and importance is found in his philosophical writings captured in the form of a huge number of essays.

His writing merged personal anecdotes with intellectual and philosophical insights and, though his work was not always admired in his lifetime as 'proper style', it has influenced many other writers and thinkers.

Writer Michael Barry asks the audience to adopt the role of an English visitor, in order to have Jonathan Hansler's Montaigne address us directly.

And that device works admirably enough to engage us for the entirety of the proceedings, delivering sufficient breadth of detail about both the man and his times to intrigue us about his nature, seeming to be often at odds with (and in advance of) his times and who courageously stuck his neck out by voicing untypical opinions which might easily have landed him in prison or much worse.

We hear about his humanitarian views - he hated cruelty, for example - and also about his medical condition that involved the painful passing of kidney stones, and we discover a personality whose mind raced over wide-ranging issues and concepts, reflecting the rambling nature of his essays.

Helen Niland's production evidences considerable painstaking work and methodology which in itself is impressive and also makes for an interesting and illuminating evening.

However, some of the technical elements seemed wanting - merely reinforcing rather than enhancing and bolstering the action and mood.

And even though we find different emotions surfacing - humour and melancholy for example - the dynamics of the action occasionally appeared too even, restrained and a touch underplayed.

The play, though, is an interesting and enjoyable character sketch of, and a worthy testament to an intriguing and important historical figure who deserves recognition in a dramatic form, and it's certainly worth a visit to glean more about 'The First Modern Man'.

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