Left – David Suchet. Cover – David Suchet. Photos – Ash Koek
One of the finest character actors of his generation, David Suchet is that rare kind of thespian who, despite a rather proper and even unassuming manner, manages to absolutely command the attention and adoration of the huge Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. And mostly just by being himself.
The beloved British actor, best known for playing a beloved Belgian detective, is chiefly presented “in conversation” with Jane Hutcheon – a kind of mock interview, if you will. Suchet discusses his varied career across fifty years, giving insight into not only his life and many memorable roles, but also his own personal techniques and philosophies behind the craft he clearly takes very seriously.
These delightful anecdotes are sparingly punctuated with brief one-man demonstrations, as Suchet spryly hops to his feet to show how he developed Hercule Poirot’s idiosyncratic walk, or reenact mortifying audition experiences in his early days breaking into the repertory theatre scene. Indeed, he imparts quite a string of self-effacing tales of theatrical misadventure, with injuries, broken props, half-raised curtains and other amusing mishaps that would seem right at home in a performance of Noises Off.
This balance is somewhat reversed after interval, opening the second “act” with a stunning rendition of a Salieri monologue from 'Amadeus', one of his acclaimed former stage roles. After Hutcheon comes back on for a bit more chat, Suchet again takes the stage solo to launch into a Shakespeare “masterclass” of sorts, essentially giving a TED Talk on some of the basics of the Bard’s use of language. Iambic pentameter, onomatopoeia, and alliteration are explained, complete with demonstrations via pertinent snippets of speeches by Oberon, Caliban, Shylock and Macbeth.
Perhaps the least engaging aspect of the show for me, this was a bit “Shakespeare 101”, perhaps aimed at those less accustomed to live theatre or who only came to hear about Poirot. Yet that said, Suchet’s passion for the subject matter was evident, and when he launched into his all-too-brief monologues they were, in a word, stunning. Although it may sound like an exaggeration, this was one of the very best renditions of the famous “sound and fury” speech I’ve ever experienced, and that’s from someone who has seen over two dozen productions of The Scottish Play. Thrilling stuff.
So, what to make then of this odd mishmash of faux-interview and acting instructional, peppered through with absorbingly dramatic micro-performances? Perhaps this is not a unique practice, but the whole idea of an actor doing a career “retrospective” on stage is certainly something new to this reviewer, and is an interesting prospect to assess.
As a format, the show is certainly unconventional, and appears to be born out of a particularly good episode of Hutcheon’s ABC interview series One Plus One in which she memorably interviewed Suchet a few years ago. In some ways this “retrospective” initially seems a bit like a live restaging of that interview, with some of the same stories retold verbatim, and a slightly rehearsed quality to the proceedings creeping in at the edges of one’s awareness.
Of course, Suchet is such a consummate actor that even when being himself he seems convincingly delighted to be receiving these prods from Hutcheon to head off into his charming reminiscences – so much so that you’d almost believe he didn’t know which questions were coming. Indeed, a show such as this with any even remotely more self-aggrandising actor would quite likely be excruciating, like an autodidactic Inside the Actors Studio misfire of theatrical onanism.
Yet Suchet makes it work. Superbly.
His charm, modesty and gentle charisma come together to generate an unexpectedly commanding stage presence, whether simply in the mode of a delightful raconteur or in his brief moments of full-on character performance. Beyond being simply an engaging speaker, however, what Suchet has to say is genuinely interesting.
While the lowest-common-denominator instructional on Shakespeare may be a bit basic for those already initiated, Suchet’s autobiographical reminiscences are quite delightful. His many theatre tales – of feeling awkwardly old-fashioned in drama school during the swinging ‘60s, being instantly smitten with his future wife while he was playing the decidedly unattractive role of Renfield in 'Dracula', or his mother’s intrusive theatre etiquette – are genuinely hilarious. Particularly astonishing is the story of his rapid advancement in the Royal Shakespeare Company due the happenstance of understudying two major roles and then having to take over both at once after a castmate’s misfortune.
On a deeper level however, one gradually forms the picture of Suchet as an actor particularly dedicated to his artform, with a particular focus on voice work, and a veritable mania for meticulous research.
Moreover, he repeatedly stresses his philosophy that an actor’s job is to service the intentions of his writers, as well as the vision of (good) directors. Whether a fictional character like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Peter Shaffer’s heavily fictionalised Salieri, or genuine historical figures such as Sigmund Freud, Cardinal Benelli or Robert Maxwell, the painstaking dedication to research remains the same. Even with ostensible villains such as in some of his Hollywood work, or a broad role like Lady Bracknell, Suchet’s commitment to uncovering the personal truth of his characters is unwavering. While clearly not fond of the term “method actor”, Suchet also discussed his tendency to stay in character between takes while filming, and eventual needed to learn techniques to shed his roles at the end of the work day and regain a sense of his own identity.
There seems to be very little personal ego in his process beyond a dogged determination to build his performances on an architecture of painstaking investigation into how these characters should view themselves, their particular likes and dislikes, how they should move, and especially how they should sound. This last point is rather spectacularly brought home by a demonstration of how he arrived at not only the very specific Belgian accent for Poirot, but more impressively how he used Christie’s text to come to the conclusion that the famous literary detective should have an entirely different vocal register to his naturally more dulcet tones.
Indeed, closing out as it does with a short video montage of his Poirot performances across the decades, one is struck, quite aside from his affected walk, posture or notorious moustache, how even the set of the character’s face looks markedly different to Suchet’s naturally affable countenance, so minutely observed was his characterisation.
A curious night at the theatre which worked much better than might have been expected, this stroll through the personal and theatrical mindscape of one of the great British character actors was a rare and delightful treat.
Kay & McLean Productions presents
Poirot and More: A Retrospective | David Suchet
co-created by David Suchet and Liza McLean
Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 23 January 2020
ALSO TOURING 2020
Melbourne Arts Centre Melbourne | Saturday 25 January | www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Gold Coast HOTA | Wednesday 29 January | www.hota.com.au
Brisbane QPAC | Saturday 1 February | www.qpac.com.au
Newcastle Civic Theatre | Saturday 8 February | www.civictheatrenewcastle.com.au
Adelaide Adelaide Festival Centre | Wednesday 12 February | www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au