Reviewing THE FIRST MODERN MAN by Michael Barry, starring Jonathan Hansler
Hen and Chickens Theatre, London 20th February 2019
As poetry graces the soul, the essay explores each thought’s travel;
It was writer and French Nobleman, Michel De Montaigne who defined this
By adjusting the mind across forms. The discoverer of the means by which
Intellect achieved message, Michael Barry’s play celebrates him
And through Jonathan Hansler, the actor, we soon fall in line
With the cause which was concerned with a measurement for the world
Into clarifying systems of order; blocks of reflection: mind mirrors,
Reflecting back the precision of the considered word’s bright reward.
The play opens, rich feed for those gathered at London’s Hen and Chickens
Introducing a subject for theatre that goes so far beyond the pale day;
Those shallow concerns and increasingly singular stories no longer challenge
Or bring the critical art into play. The essay is still right at the heart
Of perception. It’s approach and arrangement of observation and fact
Provide proof of all that we don’t understand or may otherwise wish
To discover. From Sixteenth Century manners to part of our own
Private truth. Hansler takes on the solo role of Montaigne as he journeys
From rooms of privilege to the gutters that run with all that is cast
From wronged hearts. With stature and poise, a sun baked voice,
Grace and humour, Hansler patrols the space, eager to show
Each questioning view, reason’s stance. Actors communicate first.
There are there in order to serve the writer. Enabled by directors
They must use the guidance found in rehearsal to lead us nimbly
Towards the treasure of thought that words prize. And so it proves here
As play and actor both capture the realm of ideas and the water
That now flows again through dead eyes. Montaigne’s tidy room
Fills the stage that Director Helen Niland peoples. As Montaigne moves
From desk to Window, and from notebook to door, time’s revived.
His treasured cat brings dead mice, a testament to its owner,
And this tiny detail is what helps our host regain life. Julian Starr
Paint the space with music of the time, for transcendence,
Montaigne’s sensibility carried by the echo of sound and the pleasure
Of the period theme affords grace.
Hansler houses all with calm poise, filling our ears with fast talking,
And it is his fluency with a sentence that sets this actor apart –
He knows pace. Such craft is sadly lacking today,
When the medium teaches nothing beyond starred appearance
And the provision of fame in large rooms. But in this small theatre tonight
One can for one hour listen to one man’s life freshly conjured as the ghosts
From spent days peer and loom. Montaigne takes us in, but refers to
Unseen spirits with him; these are perhaps his confessors
Or the future readers he’d claim. A sense of communion forms,
Helped by the accuracy of the stage set; Piran Jeffock’s persuasion
Of detail into a believable house helps regain
That charmed connection, long lost, but seized tonight with composure,
By a dignified actor, whose voice and presence remind us
Of past generations who in performing for us made words dance.
As of course, did Montaigne, essaying on thumbs, cannibals
And the education of children. Today, England’s dying
And about to become its own orphan. Learn from the cat.
Bid it in. And honour the frame for which thought was fashioned;
In the arguments we’ve forsaken there is still much to cherish
In brand new readings of this former and fine son of France.
One man shows can be plays or they can be lantern lecture;
In teaching us, this illusion of story and plot finds new air.
This piece is radio for the eye, and film for the ear as past fragments
Align with thought’s fire; past and present connecting
To the starting flames of the future, the warmth of which we’d all share.
David Erdos 20/2/19