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.