The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

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Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

Romeo & Juliet, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC2

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Romeo and Juliet was written roughly 420 years ago, but this production makes it feel as though it was taken from stories that we see on the news today. Director Erica Whyman has made bold decisions and taken calculated risks in order to emphasise the similarities and the differences in society in the intervening time.

This is a Romeo and Juliet that deals with gang culture and knife crime. Romeo, Juliet and their friends are young teens dealing with self image, perception and how they wish to be seen. This production highlights how young they are, Shakespeare wrote Juliet as a fourteen year old and I have never before seen a version where I was so aware of their youth and inexperience. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are schoolkids trying to look hard in a world where they and all their peers carry knives.

Karen Fishwick is convincing as Juliet – a feisty teenager, used to getting her own way and not above a fit of defiance when she does not. She is surprised by her depth of feeling for Romeo but trusts it completely. Bally Gill is excellent as a contemporary Romeo. At the start he is mooning over his unrequited love for Rosalind but within a day he is head over heels in love with Juliet, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He squeezes comedy out of dramatic text. They make a credible young couple, each feeding off the others love.

The director has made a couple of other interesting decisions too. She has changed the gender of Escalus and Mercutio. Both bring something new to the text, The Prince of Verona being a woman brings new light to the speeches about the posturing of men in order to appear powerful. Mercutio’s change is double edged, she is more aggressive because she has to prove herself in a man’s arena, thereby verifying the effect of the sexism she is trying to dispel. Josh Finan is fantastic as Benvolio, he plays him with a schoolboy crush on Romeo, a contemporary twist that fits the text surprisingly well.

The set is bare except for a metal cube. A very abstract idea, but quite practical. It works as a room, the balcony, a dais for the bed, a wall to hide behind….  Personally, I would have preferred a more specific setting, but it is clever and inventive, and it is always interesting to see new thought provoking designs.

Do not go to see this if you want a historic, late 16th Century, costume drama performed as it would have been when it was written.  Do go if you want to see why this play has endured and why a story written so long ago still has relevance to our society today. I know that this production will not be universally loved but I really enjoyed it. It brings new life to one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays.