The First Modern Man – Theatre Review

THE First Modern Man is a fascinating insight into the mind of Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth century French nobleman. An individual before his time. Progressive rather than dogmatic – and although religious someone who was appalled by the horrors inflicted on people in the name of religion.

Set in Montaigne’s library on the estate he inherited from his father near Bordeaux, the play is delivered by way of a monologue – with the audience his guests. A rambling one at that as Montaigne (expertly played by Jonathan Hansler) spouts forth on a range of issues – most, the subject of essays he has penned.

So we learn of his views on cruelty (hates it all), the ‘civilised’ world’s disdainful treatment of cannibals (based on the ludicrous fact they don’t wear breeches) and the wanton waste of life (old women burnt – ‘roasted’ – at the stake as witches when what they were really in need of was some good old fashion medicine).

He also reminisces about his audience with the Pope, his underwhelming time as Mayor of Bordeaux (marked by a distinct lack of activity) and the various stones he has painfully passed through his penis – detailing their size and where they were passed (everywhere from Rome to Venice). Eye watering. He even takes time out to give his views on doctors whom he accuses of ‘spinning us stories’.

Montaigne is a philosopher’s dream (Alain de Boton is among those to have paid homage to him) as evidenced by his string of marvellous short and sharp sayings. ‘I know I know nothing’ – ‘I fear fear’ – ‘I’m consistently inconsistent’ – ‘we always learn things too late’ – and ‘I love everything that nature gives’.

Montaigne’s monologue is expertly delivered by Hansler (breeches and all) who rarely has time to draw breath other than to observe what the cat – a warrior – has brought in as its latest kill.

Hansler also interacts nicely with the ‘English’ audience, at one stage imploring the English to behave better than the Spaniards did in Peru (murdering and executing all before them) if they go on to colonise parts of the world. The only naughty Englishman in the audience (February 21) was the idiot who let his phone ring out for twenty seconds.

In tune with his character, Hansler did not bat an eyelid although he must have been tempted to pick up the musket on stage and fire off a shot in the offender’s direction.

The First Modern Man has been written by Michael Barry. It is an ode to Montaigne and his affection for the philosopher shines throughout like a Roman candle. A commendable work of love.

With direction from Helen Niland, effective sound and lighting from Julian Starr and Venus Raven respectively, this is a refreshing insight into the mind of someone born way before his time. Yes, Montaigne was melancholic but he was not maudlin or sentimental. Open minded rather than narrow minded. Conciliatory rather than confrontational.

Tolerant of others at a time when bigotry was all the fashion. Someone many today could learn a lot from. Tolerance is a virtue, intolerance a vice.

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