"Bravo! Hansler is a tour-de-force.

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.......

 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. "

CLOSE UP CULTURE (no star ratings given on site)

"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."


'What the Cat Knows'

"Play and actor both capture the realm of ideas"

ACT DROP (star rating not given on site)

 "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.....

 The play......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'. "

VIEW FROM THE CIRCLE (no star ratings given on site)

"The play is ...an entertaining success.

The production on evidence is extremely accomplished too. Director Helen Niland has done a great job to create a little world around Montaigne that feels real. Piran Jeffcock's set combines with Venus Raven's clever lighting and Julian Starr's affecting sound to impressively create the world inside Montaigne's library (where the play is set), the occasional intrusion of the outside world (sad we never got to meet the always just off stage cat though) and the world conjured by his memory and imagination. A charismatic, engaging and subtle performance from Jonathan Hansler as Montaigne anchors everything. This show in this space with a weaker actor would be an absolute disaster.

I was both impressed and entertained by The First Modern Man.....It is an hour of solidly good writing, performed with honesty and commitment, really well staged. Like sitting down to a dinner party to find you've been put next to the most interesting guest, it's an evening very well spent. Even if you have to fight your way through the football crowd to get there. "

VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEAT  -  (no star ratings given on site)


"The theatre above the Hen and Chickens in Islington is about the same size as a study. The intimacy it fosters is perfect for a one-sided conversation with a long dead French philosopher. The First Modern Man, alluding to Montaigne’s pluralist, non-essentialist world view – a long hot soak of a philosophy in this age of suffocating hardmen and fashionable ignorance, invites us into the great man’s Bordeaux library and his thoughts on subjects ranging from colonialism to the interior life of cats.

This is a one-act play with the appeal of a good chin wag, albeit one where our interventions are scripted. Michael Barry’s celebration of a great interrogative intellect can only work if the central performance manages to convey the imagined charm of a florid and thoughtful writer, with enough biographical detail and introspection to round out the thinker. It succeeds.

Jonathan Hansler’s likeable performance, best in moments of understatement, perhaps because the limited space renders projection as overstatement, succeeds in conjuring a thoughtful soul, beleaguered by gall stones and memories of what we now call a near death experience – a fall from a horse. His situation prompts reflections on mortality, nobility (he’s a Lord after all), faith and nationalism that feel relevant for being heartfelt and acutely observed.

In touching on religious persecution and the very real 16th century fear of literal damnation, the play manages to give a flavour of the period and its anxieties, deftly bound up with the personality of our host. The conceit of the invisible interlocutor visiting from Renaissance England, allows for some neat meta-commentary on the propensity of great powers to copy each other’s mistakes, not least in their treatment of different peoples and their adherence to the pernicious myth of essentialism.

That undercurrent suggests that Barry sees Montaigne not just as a modern man but a man whose philosophy helps us to understand modern times. As the country enjoys its own existential crisis and recalibration over Brexit, there’s plenty of fringe theatre looking for fresh inroads into the questions that bedevil politician and voter alike. This refreshing spin allows us to spend an hour in the company of a man who pondered questions of imperialism and intolerance centuries ago and found justifications for both wanting. Not a play that’s going to shake your average London theatregoer then, but one that might just introduce them to a new ally they can quote in the heat of family arguments."