Most famous as TV's moustachioed sleuth, David Suchet’s onstage role as a cardinal is cashing in on his mass appeal. By Peter Craven.

David Suchet’s Last Confession

English actor David Suchet, currently in Australia to star in The Last Confession.
English actor David Suchet, currently in Australia to star in The Last Confession.

The trajectory of an actor’s career is always an enigma. David Suchet played Iago at the Royal Shakespeare Company opposite Ben Kingsley’s Othello. Anyone who has seen his toweringly sinister performance as Melmotte in the television version of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or his startling and uncanny reanimation of Robert Maxwell – that dodgiest of crooked billionaires – would be likely to mark Suchet down as the kind of character actor who can loom up for a moment as something twisted and terrible, one of nature’s Bond villains or one of the creepier characters in Jacobean tragedy.

And yet this side of his career – that capacity to make grotesquerie and evil seem real – is only one of the tricks in his pack of cards, and not the showiest. What he’s famous for is playing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian super-sleuth with the “leetle grey cells” and waxed moustache, probably the greatest detective in imaginative fiction since Sherlock Holmes, a character almost at the edge of comical absurdity who is nevertheless for the whodunit fan a kind of shaman and seer, a figure of steely intelligence and iron rectitude. 

Suchet has played Poirot for 25 years and has covered him through every one of Christie’s stories: he is known and loved around the world as this archetypal, improbable detective, this figure who invites parody and fun but outsmarts most readers and viewers. And this, in turn, has had its consequences for Suchet’s career.

The character actor has not only become a star in the popular medium of television but this has reflected back and reshaped his theatre career. He has played Timon of Athens, that late, craggy role for Trevor Nunn – a natural stepping stone perhaps for the greatest of all roles, King Lear. And he has played some of the greatest roles of the classic modern American theatre: he was George to Diana Rigg’s Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the father in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. And then, like a catastrophe or a comet, for six long months he copped what is arguably the greatest of all modern roles, as well as the most excruciating – James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

It’s a fascinating career and the transitions in it are a bit like those of Patrick Stewart after he played Captain Picard in Star Trek and Professor X in X-Men. It’s the popular fame that has enabled the zenith of the serious and classical success: Suchet’s James Tyrone, Stewart’s Macbeth and Mark Antony. 

David Suchet is in Australia now as part of an international tour of The Last Confession, a play set in Rome at the time of the sudden death, after only 33 days in the chair of St Peter, of Pope John Paul I. The impersonator of Poirot, the man who was such a formidable Duke of York in the 2012 BBC TV Richard II, purrs with quiet calm as he talks about the current show and his unlikely, brilliant career. It’s a manner that could sound self-satisfied if it wasn’t so obviously modest and if its courtesy did not well up from a contentment that has its own share of wonder. 

I asked him, this man with the beetling brows and the great bald dome of a head, if The Last Confession was a Vatican detective story. 

“That’s just the popular press release angle,” he says. “It’s true as far as it goes, but it’s a far deeper piece of work. When John Paul I died in 1978, he was the pope on whom great hopes had been pinned to carry on the work of Vatican II.” There had been the controversy, Suchet says, that followed the reforms in the Catholic Church, the split between reformers and conservatives and the prospect that the new pope would carry on the reforms. “And the first day,” he says, “after the news broke of his death, the whole of Rome thought he had been poisoned.” 

 Suchet isn’t necessarily endorsing the conspiracy theory but he’s keen to emphasise that if The Last Confession is a thriller, it’s not simply one thriller. 

“It’s a play about politics and faith and crises of faith. The character I play – Cardinal Benelli – was known as the Berlin Wall of the Vatican, a kind of Kissinger figure who might have been pope himself but believed John Paul I was the man for the job – that he’d be better. And when the new pope died, Benelli couldn’t believe it. How could God allow this to happen? He was the Archbishop of Florence and it shook his faith in the Church. He died a few years after with his faith in God restored, but with great doubts about the state of the church.

“It was a very torturous time for him and the play reflects that. It’s as much about that as it is about who killed the pope. It’s a play about non-political power plays. It’s not exactly about religion, but it’s a play about murder and faith.”

Suchet is proud of the fact The Last Confession, which was first performed at the Chichester Festival in 2007 and then transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is being performed by a company of actors from around the world – Australians and Canadians among them, he says, “though they all speak what we call RP”, that is, standard English. “And my wife [Sheila Ferris] plays a nun. She’s the only woman in the cast.” 

It’s fascinating that the play should have a religious theme, as well as a residually ratiocinative one, because Suchet, whose ancestry is Lithuanian Jewish, is a convert to Christianity.

“I was never Jewish by faith,” he says. “My mother was Anglican but I was not brought up in any faith.”

Although his mother’s nominal Anglicanism meant an absence of matrilineal Jewishness, it was that most characteristically Jewish figure in the New Testament, the great law-giver St Paul, the man who was struck blind on the road to Damascus, who converted Suchet. According to legend, it came when he was reading Romans 8. “If God be for us, who can be against us? … For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Suchet glosses the story. “Well, up until Romans 8 I was very confused. Then I found a world view I wanted to belong to, something that could be summarised by the word love. The twin loves of God and neighbour.” 

He talks about Paul’s epistle to the Romans as “a beautiful letter” and refers to the famous bit of St Paul where he says, “If Christ be not risen, our faith is vain.”

“It suddenly gave me a world view,” Suchet says. “I had been searching, going back to the ’60s. I’d read Carlos Castaneda. At one point, I was fascinated by Zen Buddhism. I was never a hippie, I was far away from that. But I was searching.”

He adds that it took him a long time, from his conversion in 1986 until 2007 when he was confirmed, in fact as an Anglican.

“Agnosticism,” he says, “is the most uncomfortable place, because you need to be able to move either side.” He says now that he sees himself as an Anglo-Catholic and that the difficulty with the Church of England is that where its breadth is supposed to invite diversity, in fact, leads to division. So now that God is on his side, or at least he wants to be on the side of God, what does he make of his career, looking back on it? 

“I’ve had the most extraordinary career,” he says. “When you think of someone of my shape and size and look, you would hardly say I was characteristically the sort of person who would be given a career like this. And when Poirot turned up, I had no idea that it was something that would touch so many people.”

Suchet is an actor of pretty vast virtuosity. He is soon to play Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest – as our own Geoffrey Rush has done – but he never had the remotest idea of himself as the sort of “star” who would gleam in himself. 

“Everything I do is character work. Think of Tom Cruise. Or Rex Harrison. If you came to see Rex Harrison act, that is what you wanted – you wanted to see Rex Harrison and if you didn’t get it, you’d be disappointed. You know, if he was different.

“I don’t think of myself as a star, because it’s all character work. I have never been cast as ‘myself’. If I’m a star in any sense, it’s by playing characters. I guess in that way, it’s more like Alec Guinness in his day.”

The difficulty, of course, is that the supreme character actor, such as Guinness, can be caught in the net of his mannerisms, which is why Peter Sellers could send up Guinness as Sir Eric Goodness and why George Lucas was simply emphasising one aspect of Guinness’s persona as the saintly and heroic Obi-Wan in Star Wars. It’s not impossible to imagine that the religious and mild Suchet could go in that direction. Guinness, after all, was a famous Father Brown. 

It would seem, though, an unfair question to throw at Suchet, even if he’s playing a cardinal. So I ask him about Lear. Is it possible he could climb that unholy mountain? 

“I think it’s very possible that I might be asked to do it,” he says. “Having seen it so many times, I can only say that I’d be so frightened to do it. It’s the role where you’re most exposed and where there’s the greatest expectation because it’s the greatest role. Would I ever accept the role? I don’t know. Someone would have to say, ‘Here it is. It’s in your lap.’ But there’s such a spotlight shining on you, there’d be such a fear you’d be discovered.

“If I ever did Lear, I’d like to do it in a small-scale studio production because I see it very much as a family play. Shakespeare is always so keen to downsize things. Even in Henry V, he shows the king down among his troops.”

This reminds me, speaking of History plays, of Suchet’s performance as the Duke of York in Richard II, which was very tough and masculine and very far from the slightly dithery old man of typecasting. He’s delighted that I liked it. “Yes, he’s so often played as a rather silly old man. I wanted to play him as someone responsible, who would naturally be given the kingdom to supervise. A responsible character however much he might be indecisive.”

The conversation turns to Suchet’s performance as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey. “That’s the modern equivalent to Lear,” he says. “Even though some people said the performance was unforgettable, all that I remember is that the experience of doing it for six months was the most agonising thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t know how I did it.”

You know through all of this, through all his time at the pinnacle of his profession, playing a role such as James Tyrone, which Fredric March had done on the New York stage and Ralph Richardson did with Katharine Hepburn on screen, that he owes it not to his ability but to the break that made him famous as Poirot. He says that people from all over the world came to see him in Long Day’s Journey – that most scarifying play about a family tearing itself apart – because of Poirot. 

“There was a Russian couple who came backstage,” he says. “With an interpreter! They were in tears and they had sat through the whole thing not knowing any English.”

 There are things waiting in the wings for Suchet. A major Shakespearean role (no doubt with a major company), another show with ITV perhaps, neither of which he wants to talk about in detail. 

He sighs in wonder and satisfaction at it all. He says that the clue to how he played his villains, the Melmottes and his Maxwells, was to get inside their own belief that they were saving the world. Well, Suchet has his faith now and he’s nothing if not grateful for the grace of God for Poirot, who opened every door for him. 

“I am a jobbing actor,” he says. “I’ve always known you have to take a role on its merits and not think of your career.”

And Poirot: what can he say? “I adore him and he’s also a pain in my backside.”

In any case, a lot of people around the country have bought tickets to see Suchet in his cardinal’s clobber because of that funny old sleuth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 11, 2014 as "Flavour Suchet".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.