Living with Princes by Stephen Wakelam

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BBC Radio 3, 23 January 2011

Rational, suave, articulate, analytical; such qualities rendered Michel de Montaigne (Roger Allam) a particular favorite at the court of Queen Catherine de Medici (Jane Lapotaire), as well as someone in demand from the warring factions in late sixteenth-century France, both for his counsel and his support. In Allam’s performance, Montaigne came across as a celebrity scholar, the Simon Schama of his day; given the opportunity, he would have appeared as a pundit on one of the many news-channels that dominate our screen, or participated on one of the government-sponsored committees enquiring into some misdeed or other.

At the same time Montaigne was so preoccupied with intellectualizing his existence and setting his feelings down in his Essays, that he could neither relate to his wife, family nor his secretary/ companion Peslier (James Norton). Partly this could be attributed to his rather dry, abstract method of speech, coupled with Allam’s rather mannered, emotionless performance lacking tone and shade. Even when ill with kidney-stones, his vocal tone seldom changed.

Perhaps this approach to characterization was deliberate on director Jeremy Mortimer’s part, to support the idea that Montaigne’s mental state seldom changed, even while his physical state disintegrated. This is what rendered him such an original thinker, as well as a much-sought-after counselor and/ or confidante. However Allam’s performance did not make for great drama: I felt that both actor and writer were dutifully promenading through Montaigne’s life without relating it in a suggestive manner to the socio-political context of late sixteenth-century France. Just having Peslier narrating the events in direct address to listeners did not make for a particularly engaging piece. The play represented something of a missed opportunity to dramatize a turbulent period in European history and to assess Montaigne’s contribution to it.