Hear David Suchet discuss Poirot and more at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
By Sam Marlowe
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 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, David Suchet will look back over his life and work and be joined on stage by Geoffrey Wansell, co-author of his book Poirot and Me. He’ll also present an acting masterclass, performing extracts and revealing some of the techniques behind his craft and characters.
Not many actors at the age of 75 would willingly contemplate the rigours of a 24-venue tour, which comes to the Cambridge Arts Theatre this Sunday (October 10). But for Suchet, the idea was irresistible – especially as we emerge from the pandemic and theatres begin to build towards recovery.
“I wanted to bring my show to audiences around the country who haven’t had the chance to enjoy theatre for so long,” he explains. “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.”
The global adoration of Suchet’s Poirot still staggers him. “It’s extraordinary,” he says. “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.”
On the contrary, when he was first approached about the role, Suchet had the gravest doubts about accepting, and even confessed to them in an interview before the series first aired. “I said, ‘I’m frightened it may be boring’,” he admits. “I got into terrible trouble with ITV for saying that!”
Poirot had already been portrayed by Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney, and Suchet had even played Inspector Japp to Ustinov’s Hercule in Thirteen at Dinner, a 1986 TV film. Returning to Agatha Christie’s
books, however, he soon set his little grey cells to work creating a version all his own, now regarded as definitive.
“I never set out to be better than anyone else, or even different – it just happened,” he recalls. “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.”
The actor has firm views about the performer/director relationship: “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” – and he’s never been shy about insisting on the integrity of his characterisation.
“There were more than one or two occasions when I had to dig my heels in, and there were many contretemps,” he cheerfully admits. “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.”
Looking back at all the characters he’s embodied, he says he still thinks about many of them, and even misses them – Poirot, of course, above all, with the recollection of Curtain, that final, deathbed episode
in 2013, still a wrench.
“It was as if I had to kill my best friend,” he says softly. “He wasn’t just a character to me, he gave me my career. He changed my life.” So, with the benefit of hindsight, would Mr Suchet have done anything differently? “I wouldn’t change a single day,” he says.
“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.”
David Suchet: Poirot and More, A Retrospective will play at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Sunday, October 10. For tickets, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.