David Suchet Q&A with theatre critic Sam Marlowe
Theatre critic Sam Marlowe sat down with David Suchet to discuss his upcoming show Poirot and More, A Retrospective which comes to Mayflower Theatre on 24 October 2021.
He’s played everyone from Shakespearean kings to Mozart’s nemesis Salieri, Sigmund Freud and Robert Maxwell – not to mention a certain internationally cherished, splendidly moustached little Belgian detective. Now audiences across England get their chance to meet the man behind all those brilliantly realised portrayals – David Suchet, an actor renowned for his attention to detail, with a career on stage, television, film and radio spanning more than 50 years. In Poirot and More: A Retrospective, Suchet, joined on stage by Geoffrey Wansell, co-author of his book Poirot and Me, will look back over his life and work. He’ll also present an acting masterclass, performing extracts and revealing some of the techniques behind his craft and characters.
SM: Not many actors, at the age of 75, would willingly contemplate the rigours of a 24-venue tour. What was the appeal?
DS: I wanted to bring my show to audiences around the country who haven’t had the chance to enjoy theatre for so long. I’ve always believed in the importance of non-elitist theatre. I don’t believe that London is the centre of the universe, as far as anything is concerned – especially the arts. And we actors are rogues and vagabonds – historically we’ve always toured, going right back to the Elizabethans and before. It should be in our DNA – I think actors should put their money where their mouth is, and go out and tour.
SM: Some people will naturally be nervous, post-Covid, about returning to the theatre. Do you think this will be a good way to ease them back in?
DS: Absolutely. We’re visiting a lot of theatres and regions that have meant something to me, in my career. Everything will be safe, there’s only me on the stage, with one of my very best friends. And I’m going to be talking about my early life, how I grew up in London, my school, my very first roles, right the way through to becoming a professional actor, then joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting into television and slowly moving into film.
SM: Among the characters you’ll be presenting onstage are Shakespearean figures such as Oberon, Caliban, Macbeth and Shylock, and of course you’ll also be revisiting Hercule Poirot.
DS: Yes, it’ll be a very eclectic evening. And I’ll talk about how I developed the role of Poirot – not only textually, from the script, but how I prepared for the role, the movement, the walk I developed, and how I found his voice – which, as you know, is nothing like mine!
SM: Your portrayal of Poirot, and the series itself, have a huge global following. How does it feel to have created a television character so well loved?
DS: It’s extraordinary. It’s now eight years since I stopped filming, and during Covid, my mail bag has doubled. Because people have been locked inside, and have been downloading and buying the box sets, and watching all 73 episodes, and they write to me saying it’s got them through the pandemic. I had no idea, in 1987 when I started filming, that this series would have the international impact that it has. I’m genuinely humbled by the fact that people still find it so rewarding, and I’m eternally grateful, I really mean it. I never, ever anticipated it.
SM: In fact, you had misgivings about accepting the job initially, didn’t you? And even admitted to them in a TV interview at the time?
DS: That’s right! I said, “I’m frightened it may be boring”. I got into terrible trouble with ITV for that!
SM: At that time, Poirot had already been portrayed by Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney, and you yourself had played Inspector Japp to Ustinov’s Hercule in Thirteen at Dinner, a 1986 TV film. How did you go about creating a version of the character that felt fresh, and has since become definitive?
DS: I went back to Agatha Christie’s books. I never set out to be better than anyone else, or even different – it just happened. I reread the stories and engaged with a little man that I hadn’t seen before, and it was that little man that I decided to become. I’ve always believed an actor’s job is one of creative servitude – in other words, I’m allowed my own voice as a creative artist, but never beyond what I believe the writer intended or hoped for his or her creation.
SM: You have a reputation for being very exacting as an actor, and for scrupulous attention to detail. Your autobiography Poirot and Me describes how, between takes, you refused to sit for fear of creasing Hercule’s immaculate suit, choosing instead to rest by using a “leaning board” – an upright contraption with a little ledge for the buttocks, pioneered in early Hollywood for actresses in tight, ornate gowns. Poirot’s famous facial hair was also something of a work of art in its own right, wasn’t it?
DS: Yes, it was never my own moustache, because it would have made me too conspicuous in public – I’d never have been able to go out of my front door. But also I would never have been able to maintain it. Over a 13- or 14-hour shooting day, it had to be repeatedly taken off and redressed – so it had to be false. It did vary a little bit – I think Christie herself had about eight versions of the moustache in her books – but as near as dammit, we tried to match the one that she describes in Murder on the Orient Express. I had to have my dresser and my make-up artist with me constantly, and my dresser would stop a take halfway through – we all gave him permission because I was so particular – and if, say, the bowtie moved, he would come in and straighten it, and we’d have to start the scene again. It would drive the film crew and directors crazy!
SM: So you must have had to be quite firm about how you wanted the filming process to go?
DS: Oh, yes. If a director tells me how to act, then we don’t get on. A director should point you in the right direction, not tell you how to drive the car. There were more than one or two occasions when I had to dig my heels in, and there were many contretemps. Christie never changed Hercule Poirot, throughout all the over 70 stories. He was given small differences – he tried a wristwatch at one point, and he tried changing the width of the stripe of his trousers. But as a person, he never changed. You’d be amazed over the years how many directors came in and said, I want to do something completely different with Poirot. And I had to say, look, I’m terribly sorry, but you can’t. He’s got to stay the same, because of my ethos of serving my writer. So I became his defender in a way. I have a lot of sympathy for all the directors that worked with me, I do! But it’s not me being difficult as an actor – it’s just me protecting the character.
SM: Your contract for Poirot was renewed annually, so at the end of each year you found yourself once again unemployed – a familiar situation for even the most celebrated actors. How did you handle that?
DS: It was difficult at the time. I’m a typical Taurean, I like things in their place. Like Poirot, I like order and method, and I’m not very good at uncertainty. I had to put faith in choice and the future, already in a very insecure profession. But actually, what a gift! I could fill that time with my theatre work, and other film work in America, and do tours, because I wasn’t contracted. So my theatre career grew, and thanks to Poirot I was ‘bums on seats’ – people wanted to see me. It meant I could tackle Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Terence Rattigan – not popular commercial stuff, but big, heavy character roles, major leads in the British theatre, at the same time as doing this mega TV series. Wasn’t I lucky? It couldn’t have worked out better.
SM: You’re also a highly accomplished amateur photographer, having learnt the craft from your grandfather, the renowned Fleet Street snapper James Jarché. Would you say you’re an artist with a particularly acute visual sense?
DS: I would. I think of my life and career as a spider’s web. I am a spider, we all are. We spin our life, and we can’t see what we’re spinning. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us tomorrow. Every spider spins a different web. It’s a miracle of nature. The spider spins from behind, and it’s only at the end of each thread that he can turn around and see how his web is forming. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I have no idea what’s happening to me, and then when I look back at my web, I can see all the different patterns. And my goodness, how magnificent my web – my life – has been.
SM: You also, in 1993, got to work with Harold Pinter, when he directed you and Lia Williams in the Royal Court’s UK premiere of Oleanna, the controversial David Mamet play about campus gender politics.
DS: Harold was one of our greatest men of the theatre, of all time. Working with him, I discovered a complete and utter soul mate. It felt as if he knew me – the person I was, the way I worked. We became very close. And I had the enormous privilege, in 2018, of appearing in the Jamie Lloyd Company’s West End Pinter retrospective season. I dedicated my performance to Harold.
SM: How do you feel, after more than five decades in the business, when you look back at all the people you’ve been, all the characters you’ve embodied?
DS: I still think about many of them, and I even miss them – Poirot above all, of course. That final, deathbed episode in 2013, Curtain – it was as if I had to kill my best friend. He wasn’t just a character to me. He gave me my career. He changed my life.
SM: With the benefit of hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
DS: I wouldn’t change a single day. My only note to myself as a young actor would be – never be scared. Don’t try to get it right all the time. Have the courage to be wrong. You may do things that people won’t like, but you never fail. You never fail. So always dare.
Poirot and More, A Retrospective will play at Mayflower Theatre on 24 October 2021. For tickets click here!