Which plays have had the biggest impact on you? John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Martin Crimp’s The Country all figure on Michael Barry’s list… and then there’s Harold Pinter. Barry’s own new play The First Modern Man premieres this month. In the first of our three-part series with him, he recalls his theatregoing influences. Time to get booking!
Michael Barry‘s new one-man play The First Modern Man, about French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), gets its full-length premiere at London’s The Hen & Chickens Theatre in a pre-Brexit run from 19 February to 2 March 2019, with a press night on 21 February.
All those personal articles and blogs we devour about love, sex, money, the school run, and life itself, had their beginnings in a sixteenth-century melancholic French noble. Jonathan Hansler stars as Michel de Montaigne in this premiere production, directed by Helen Niland.
Michel de Montaigne wanted to retire to a contemplative life – but he had too much on his mind. He wrote his ideas down as a way of coping with melancholy and, by doing so, created the essay.
Barry’s The First Modern Man is set in de Montaigne’s library where, as his guest, we share the thoughts of a humane, clever, funny commentator on whatever comes into his mind: sex, cannibals, philosophy, death, witches, life, foreign travel, coaches, thumbs, colonialism, judicial torture, even ‘world’ music – and his cat.
The First Modern Man runs from 19 February to 2 March 2019 at the Hen & Chickens Theatre, 109 St Paul’s Road, London N1 2NA, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £8-£12. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!
Michael Barry: My influences
I have always wanted to write for the stage. My family wasn’t what you might call a ‘theatregoing’ family, but as a schoolboy, I was packed off to see the performances of plays that we were doing for ‘A’ level. I don’t remember the first play I saw; what I do recall is the expectant darkness and sudden exhilaration as the curtains rose.
Strangely, the moment I remember best was a disaster. It was an August Strindberg play and the audience of restless teenagers didn’t get it at all. At the passionate scenes, the whole audience began to giggle and then laugh and finally collapse in paroxysms of delight. After fighting heroically, the actors gave in too and corpsed uncontrollably. Like everyone else, I was laughing, but at the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Something really brilliant has been spoiled.” I thought about how the audience was just wrong for the play, and I think it was at that moment that I began to think like a writer.
I thought about how the audience was just wrong for the play; it was at that moment that I began to think like a writer
I am inspired in two ways by other playwrights: by the way they personally approach work; and by the way they manage to come up with new ways of looking. John Osborne for me is the image of the writer who translates his own life into work. I have been reading the letters between him and his first wife, Pamela Lane, and it is clear how much of Look Back in Anger was a direct account of their life in digs in Derby.
What made him great was his courage in transmitting his feelings and perceptions – unpleasant in many ways – honestly into a piece of drama. Now, I don’t enjoy Look Back in Anger as a work; but when it was first produced, its impact of British theatre was explosive. Nothing was the same after.
I love Ibsen and I think Hedda Gabler is one of the supreme masterpieces; each scene relentlessly develops the plot with grim and perfect economy. When I wonder if I am over-writing, Ibsen is one of my guides!
Another influence, of course, is Harold Pinter. His writing defines economy, and for me, his is an art of suggestion. One of the killers for effective stage-writing is the fear that the audience won’t ‘get it’ and the accompanying sin is of spelling everything out, taking away all vitality from a performance. Pinter is the corrective for all of us! No one makes the audience work harder.
I am also a big fan of Martin Crimp. I was knocked out by his play The Country, which I saw at the Royal Court with Juliet Stevenson. I loved Attempts on her Life, which I saw in a student performance at RADA. It’s a series of attempts to pin a character, who may be called Anne, and who in one scene, may even be a car. I love anything that draws you into a completely unique experience; and it’s only the stage that delivers these moments with the maximum impact.