"Bravo! Hansler is a tour-de-force"
by Tristán White for remotegoat on 20/02/19

A treat is in store for all those of you who visit the Hen & Chickens Theatre over the next fortnight. Well-known TV, movie and theatre actor Jonathan Hansler stars alone in a brand new play about the 16th century melancholic philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, penned by Michael Barry.

I must confess, my knowledge of Montaigne was practically zero going into the play, though I was aware that he was someone who had a huge influence on many other writers ever since, from Shakespeare through to Nietzsche. His essays on humanism and in particular on psychology and child education are still influential to this day, and it was his belief that a child learns best when he or she is actually curious about the subject itself, and that educators should do all they can to encourage said curiosity. These days one cannot move for people sharing opinion pieces, trying to reach out to readers by describing situations they themselves can relate to. But back then, Montaigne was one of the earliest to write in this very personal fashion, choosing to write essays not just about big subjects such as child education, but also essays on subjects as diverse as cannibalism, posting letters, smells, and inequality. It is clearly for this reason why Michael Barry chose the title of his play: The First Modern Man.

Jonathan Hansler is a fantastic actor. I have seen him in quite a few movies and he has tended to steal the show; in particular a horror movie I recently watched called "Axed". He brings the sixteenth century character of Montaigne to life so adeptly, that there is rarely a dull moment. To soliloquise for sixty-six minutes in front of an audience, playing the role of someone of whom most if not all the audience-members were until then ignorant, with barely a moment of respite, takes an inordinate amount of talent and confidence. We learn a lot about Montaigne in those sixty-six minutes, in particular his four-year bromance with fellow writer and philosopher Estienne de La Boétie whose untimely death affected him so greatly.

It was a little unclear whether we are meant to be watching the ghost of Montaigne or not. He is addressing a modern English audience, at times talking to members of the front-row directly, and he refers to the fact that the audience is English on more than one occasion, in particular when describing sectarian violence, something he despised. But he also alludes to the fact that he was the first to refer to his writings as 'essays' and that in the future we would all be using this term. He also refers on two occasions to his death in a horse-riding collision. However, in real life he died of quinsy, an infectious abscess behind the tonsils which paralyses the tongue - for him, a particularly sad way to die as he always said that he would prefer to lose any sense, including his sight, before losing either his ability to hear or speak. Later in the play, Montaigne refers to hoping that death creeps up on him when he is in his garden. I was therefore left a little confused as to whether or not we were seeing Montaigne's ghost, or whether it is indeed just a surreal moment where an English audience is invited into the by then famously reclusive nobleman's library.

None of this ambiguity, however, detracts from one's enjoyment of this great little monologue, and everything about it works, from the sound to the lighting and the very well-constructed set design which, according to the programme, was carried out by someone called Piran Jeffcock, so therefore deserves a special extra mention in this review.

The First Modern Man runs until 2 March and is well worth the journey to the famous Highbury & Islington venue, even though the play only lasts just a little over one hour. Small but perfectly formed.

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