He has played some complex characters in his time and now David Suchet is tackling another – a Cardinal in Rome grappling with guilt and doubting his faith after the death of his friend, the Pope. The man best known for playing television detective Poirot tells Caroline Bishop why he is so fascinated by the real-life murder mystery he is starring in at the Haymarket, Roger Crane’s Vatican-set thriller The Last Confession…
With his deep, commanding voice, powerful presence and arguably the most expressive eyebrows in the profession, 61-year-old David Suchet has become one of the most respected character actors of his generation across theatre, screen and radio. Right now though, he is as excited as a fresh-faced RADA graduate about to make his debut on the West End stage. “I’m so excited! I’ve waited 38 years for the Theatre Royal Haymarket. I have never played it. All my peers have,” he tells me on the phone from Milton Keynes, where he is on tour. “I’ve always been eyeing with certain envy the most fantastic dressing room that I’m going to have.”
Suchet is excited not just about the Haymarket but about the project that has allowed him to step foot on its stage. Roger Crane’s The Last Confession is a new play that premiered in Chichester to rave reviews and toured the UK before coming to London. For all involved – including Suchet himself, who puts his money where his mouth is by investing in every West End show he appears in – bringing this play to the capital is something of a gamble because it is, he says, “almost unique”. Crane’s play is based on the factual events surrounding the sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 after only one month in office. Part murder mystery, part portrait of the political machinations inside the Vatican, the play is not exactly a mainstream subject for a West End show. It is unusual in other ways too: it has a cast that is both large – with a complete ensemble of 22 – and predominantly male (bar one nun) and it is that rarest of things in a West End bursting with musicals – an independent, commercial, new play. What’s more, adds Suchet, “It doesn’t contain one swear word.”
Crikey. The biggest challenge then, is for this “theatregoers’ play” to find its audience, and, if Suchet could only ring up and chat to every potential audience member they would flock to the Haymarket in droves, such is his infectious enthusiasm for the play. “The response has been phenomenal, we’ve done wonderful business on tour, the audience has been fantastic and the letters that one is receiving are confirmation that this play is really touching hearts,” he says. “I think for a new play to do this, it’s very rare and I think it’s the best new play I’ve seen, or read, or indeed been in, in my career.”
Though based on fact, Crane’s play is a fictitious account of what may or may not have happened to Albino Luciani, a radical Cardinal who reluctantly became Pope John Paul I because of the political engineering of his friend and fellow liberal Cardinal Benelli, played by Suchet. When, after just 33 days in office, the Pope is found dead, a devastated and guilt-ridden Benelli attempts to confront his conservative enemies and find out what happened to his friend. “For those who will remember 1978 and the untimely death of John Paul I and the discovery of Roberto Calvi’s body under Blackfriars Bridge [in 1982], and the way the conspiracy theories really erupted around that time, they will be absolutely fascinated to see all this and hear names that they know and they will be gripped. For those who don’t know it, it’s a really tense, good murder mystery,” says Suchet.
The challenge for him has been to understand the complexities of the character of Benelli, who questions his faith both before and, more so, after his friend dies. “I wanted to present the hard-nosed politician and the man who is genuinely suffering because it’s a wake-up call to his faith, and that was the challenge to me, to find that and experience it and have the courage to display it.” Suchet, a Christian in the Anglican Church, feels his own faith has helped him in this challenge: “Here is a Cardinal whose best and dearest friend was taken away – so he’s dealing with all that which is on a far deeper level than I’ve ever experienced. Of course, anybody who’s got a faith will get something very deep from this play, you don’t have to be Christian or anything like that, but certainly that journey is one that I have to go through every night and it does help having a faith because I know what doubt feels like.”
"I think it’s the best new play I’ve seen, or read, or indeed been in, in my career"
Suchet’s fascination with the play’s subject matter extended to a research trip to Rome. “After a couple of days there,” he says, “I went round St Peter’s Square and there was the Pope doing his public address and I thought where else in the world, what other city in the world would I witness this sight? In a secular world, really, in a cynical world, really, and there it is in Rome with thousands of people on their knees to this man wearing white, and I thought, my goodness me.”
The actor also seems fired up by the historic nature of the events that take place in the play. Since the death of the ‘smiling Pope’, as he was known, there have been two conservatives heading the Vatican. If John Paul I had lived? Suchet is in no doubt: “It would have changed the face of Catholicism throughout the world, until he died. It would have been revolutionary.”
Such powerful events, such complex characters; this is what Suchet loves. We last saw him on screen playing another man who died in mysterious circumstances, the media magnate and businessman Robert Maxwell, another meaty character for Suchet to tuck in to. Other roles have included the similarly corrupt Melmotte in The Way We Live Now on television, and on stage George in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Salieri in Amadeus and Antonescu in Terrence Rattigan’s Man And Boy, plus, further back, many great Shakespearean characters for the RSC. Then, of course, there is Poirot, the shuffling, well-rounded Belgian detective of Agatha Christie’s novels, whom Suchet has portrayed umpteen times on screen. “The joy of my career,” he says, “is that I’ve been given these complex minds to try and understand.”
“There is a huge difference, isn’t there, between celebrity actors – what we call stars – and character acting,” Suchet muses. “I’m a character actor, I’m not a celebrity in that sense, you don’t go to see me, you go to see the play I’m in and the character I’m playing. I certainly don’t look towards the other side of my business, the celebrity side, with any form of envy whatsoever. In fact, it fills me with horror and dread that my career should always be playing the same person, I wouldn’t like that at all.”
Thankfully, Suchet has never been confined to playing the same person, despite frequently returning to inhabit the little Belgian detective – a role he says, unequivocally, he loves. He puts this flexibility down to the fact that he was a theatre actor long before he got his big break in television, as Blott in Blott On The Landscape in 1985. Since then, he has happily been able to work in both. “That’s where both the business and the public have been so generous to me. They haven’t limited me,” he says.
It says everything about his skill as an actor, though, that people are able to forget Poirot when they see him in other things. As much as he loves the character, this is part of the reason that he would never bring Poirot to the stage. “I got a letter only two days ago from a member of the audience saying will I please, please, please, please, underlined, bring Poirot to the stage,” he says. “It’s not my intention, and I don’t want to bring him to the stage, because that would intrude on the wonderful variety that I have in the theatre and that would be bringing something that everybody knows. I would be doing it for very much the wrong reasons.”
Nevertheless, he is excited about going back to the role again on television – he has two new mysteries lined up to film after he finishes his run in The Last Confession. “To think that that’s the legacy I’ll leave behind actually fills me with a great deal of pride,” he says. “Because he’s a great character to play in a great literary setting and a wonderful writer and I believe it’s been good, clean, healthy television; it’s not reality TV, it’s not smutty. If I can leave the complete works behind me of that little character, that will be a first and it will please generations to come and that’s really what I’m here for.”
Though Suchet freely admits that Poirot is “going to be the leading line in my obituary”, there will be a lot more besides, and not just in theatre and television. “My dream,” he confides, “was to have at any one time on my table a radio script, a film script, a television script and a theatre script. If I had all four on the table to choose from I reckoned I had it made. I have to say I’ve only managed it once but it was a terrific treat to have that choice!”
"It fills me with horror and dread that my career should always be playing the same person"
He won’t profess to favouring one medium over another. In fact, given this conversation took place before the attempted car bomb on Haymarket which resulted in last Friday’s preview of The Last Confession being cancelled, his work ethic seems eerily prophetic. “I have a very strict rule in my life and I mean it – that whatever I’m doing now is the most important, because it may be my very last. If life teaches us anything at all, if this recent decade has taught us anything in our knowledge of terrorism, it is that we are lucky to be alive and tomorrow may never come. So whatever I’m doing now, first of all it’s my first love – it has to be, because it may be the last thing I do – and it has to get my total one hundred percent effort.”
Rather than being a negative outlook, Suchet feels it helps him enormously. “I find it’s very positive. Whenever I’m feeling negative, thinking ‘oh gosh I may be tired’, that turns that feeling into a huge positive because there may be somebody out there who has never been in the theatre before and I’m going to give them the very best I can.”
Suchet will be giving one hundred percent on a number of projects he has already lined up for after The Last Confession – as well as the two new Poirots, there is a film version of Man And Boy and a new television series in the pipeline, and he hopes to do more work for radio. “It’s fascinating and very rewarding,” he says of his varied career. “Every part I play I feel I’m going back to the beginning and thinking ‘oh God, can I do this?’ because it’s a challenge every time.” He wouldn’t want it any other way.