David Suchet does not do things by halves. Whether researching a character in minute detail, falling in love at first sight, or finding God at 40, his life has been underscored by high intensity.
For his most famous role as Hercule Poirot, which he first played in 1988, the English actor was not happy until he had filmed every story Agatha Christie wrote starring the short, pernickety Belgian detective. It took 25 years to complete, in the form of 70 episodes, but late in 2012, Suchet filmed Poirot’s death scene on set at Pinewood Studios. The long-term relationship was over.
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The Last Confession starring David Suchet
David Suchet takes to the stage in the new production 'The Last Confession'.
Suchet felt as bereft as he would at the loss of a dear old friend. "I still miss him," he says. The grief has not dimmed,partly because the screening of this final chapter has been staggered around the world since it went to air in Britain last November. Australia watched Poirot expire in March this year, and the five final films are showing now in North America. "So I haven’t really been able to shut the door yet," Suchet says.
It is hard to imagine he will ever escape his alter ego’s portly shadow, but Poirot’s death has also brought freedom. Despite the role’s longevity, Suchet was never certain that it would continue, waiting to hear from year to year whether the next round of films would be commissioned, then declining other roles or cutting theatre runs short to accommodate the TV series. His time is now his own.
So when the offer came to take The Last Confession to Toronto and Los Angeles, Suchet suggested a much longer tour that included Australia. He has wanted to visit for years to meet some of his most enthusiastic fans, who fill his mail bag with letters.
Now here he is,at 68, thrilled with his first couple of days in Sydney, before rehearsals in Perth for the Australian premiere. Then comes a "taster menu" of the country, as he describes it, taking in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
On first impressions, he feels strangely at home. "There’s something very British about Sydney, the buildings and the fact you drive on the left," he says. "I feel very comfortable here."
Suchet first performed The Last Confession in 2007 in England, where it had a short London season before Poirot called again. Written by Roger Crane, a New York lawyer and novice playwright, it recounts the true story of John Paul I's mysterious death, only 33 days after being appointed Pope in 1978. With no official investigation, foul play was never proven, but his plans for sweeping changes at the Vatican were deeply unpopular in some quarters. Suchet plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who helped install the new Pope and tried to find out how he died.
Suchet does intense research for each character. For Poirot, after reading Christie’s books, he wrote a dossier listing 93 character notes including habits, mannerisms and dress (number 13, ‘‘Conceited professionally - but not as a person") and went to enormous efforts to create an authentic voice and accent.
Suchet also lists similarities and differences between himself and his characters. In Poirot’s case, they are both serious men who share a love of order, and a sense of being an outsider. One is a Belgian living in England, the other a "mixed grill" Brit of Russian Jewish descent, born in London and well-schooled, but never comfortable with the English class system. Both collect clocks.
For the character of Benelli, Suchet visited the Vatican, talked to cardinals, including those present at the time of John Paul I's death, and read up on the history of Vatican II, which set out to reposition the church in the modern world.
"John Paul I was a product of that,'' says Suchet. ''He was going to be the great liberal Pope to change the views of the Catholic church on contraception, test tube babies, celibacy among priests etc, etc, and he was taken away from us."
The play is also about Benelli’s crisis of faith. Suchet, who converted to Christianity at the age of 40, after reading a hotel bible, understands this. "To have a spiritual faith is a very difficult journey in today’s world," he says. He struggles with ups and downs and "daily failing", as the cardinal does.
Suchet describes Benelli as a power broker, a Catholic Henry Kissinger, and "not likeable at all." Endearing types have never been Suchet’s specialty.
"I’ve played a lot of unsavoury people in my career," he says. The industry term "character actor" is one Suchet happily applies to himself. His long CV is full of unsavoury people, with the highlights including Othello’s scheming villain Iago, the lethally envious Salieri in Amadeus, controversial newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, and the destructive father Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
As Suchet observes: "Poirot is one of the few characters people actually warm to."
Having buried the detective, he says he would only resurrect him in a feature film.
"But I don’t think that will happen because I’m not immediately box-office draw for that sort of thing," he says. "And I wouldn’t play him in the theatre because my theatre life has always been separate from Poirot."
The stage has been the fulcrum of Suchet’s life. It is where he began work as an actor, in defiance of his doctor father. His mother, a former actress, was always supportive. From the late 1960s, he learnt his craft in regional repertory theatre, doing a new play every 10 days or so ‘‘for years on end". In 1972, in a production of Dracula in Coventry, he was instantly smitten by fellow actor Sheila Ferris; they married four years later. The couple lived on a narrow boat, chugging along the canals between theatres until Suchet got a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1973. He worked there for 13 years.
It was theatre he kept returning to in between filming Poirot, and now theatre is helping him fill the gap left by his cherished, though occasionally irritating, friend.
He has told the story many times of consulting his older brother about whether to accept the role of the iconic sleuth.''Don’t touch it with a bargepole,'' his brother advised, ''they’ll never take you seriously.'' Suchet grabbed the bargepole with both hands.
After all these years as an actor for hire, gathering awards and being recognised wherever he goes,you would think Suchet might be able to relax a little. He has performed The Last Confession many times before, with a familiar cast that includes his wife as a nun (the first time they have performed together since Dracula). Surely it must get easier?
"No, not for one second, and I’m being absolutely honest!" he says. He is as nervous before every performance as on opening night. "I never take it for granted that it’s always going to be a success. It’s moment by moment, night by night. You just take a deep breath."
The Last Confession is in Melbourne from September 3 and Sydney from September 24. The final Poirot series is screening now on ABC.