The First Modern Man
Hen & Chickens Theatre
Reviewed – 21st February 2019
“Jonathan Hansler gives an imposing performance as the French philosopher, holding court as he meanders through his life and thoughts”
To condense the life of Michel de Montaigne into an entertaining hour’s show, complete with insightful quotations and amusing anecdotes, is no mean feat. A Renaissance humanist who has been criticised, appreciated and revered over the centuries, his ‘essays’ are a record of his thoughts and experiences, written and shaped as they came to him and giving rise to a new literary form; “As my mind roams, so does my style”. Born in 1533, he was witness to the decline of intellectual optimism in France – the Calvinist Reformation and the Wars of Religion – which rejected not only his education but also his fiercely active mind. After a career in the local justice system and the Bordeaux Parliament, and with inherited financial security, he retired from public life to the tower in his chateau to read, write and meditate. And this is where we meet ‘The First Modern Man’.
Writer, Michael Barry, lends us the role of an English visitor and in the intimate setting of his tower, Michel tells us about his upbringing, his travels, his cat, his family, his ailments… his mind flitting from one subject to another. The play mirrors his fluid train of thought, but the overall impression lacks shape. He manages to fill the hour to the brim with all the important stages of de Montaigne’s life and copious details from his writing, but the play strides from beginning to end with little contrast. Jonathan Hansler gives an imposing performance as the French philosopher, holding court as he meanders through his life and thoughts. His comic timing is excellent but the direction rushes past the possible natural dynamics of this prolix monologue.
Director, Helen Niland makes constructive use of the small stage space but the explanatory movement, props and technical effects detract from the words, which are what holds de Montaigne’s story together. The pace and busyness may be intended to reflect a mind running after itself but in spite of a few punctuated pauses, it often feels like a race against the clock. Both the lighting (Venus Raven) and sound (Julian Starr) are consistent with the action but become almost blatant in their unnecessary underlining of the script.
The title ‘The First Modern Man’, attributed to de Montaigne by twentieth century literary critic Erich Auerbach, certainly echoes the blogs and posts of today’s social media and what’s more, his scepticism, his position as nominal Catholic and his insistence on his own mediocrity point to the ‘dumbing down’ often referred to nowadays. His writing shows a man out of the context of his time, sensitive, open to the unusual and seeking security in the back room of his mind, but this perspective fails to come across. It is, nevertheless, a very watchable show, full of interesting contemplation and observation but would benefit from allowing de Montaigne’s character to grow in dimension or risk being a dramatised ‘Horrible Histories’ lesson.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
The First Modern Man
Hen & Chickens Theatre until 2nd March
Previously reviewed at this venue: