British actor David Suchet, known to audiences worldwide as Hercule Poirot, celebrated 50 years in the acting profession last year. To mark the formidable milestone, he returns to Australia after 2014’s The Last Confession to tour his new stage show Poirot and More: A Retrospective. With journalist and broadcaster Jane Hutcheon joining him onstage, Suchet recounts important episodes from his life and career, liberally peppered with humorous asides and pitch-perfect evocations of a range of characters both fictional and real.
David Suchet in Poirot and More: A Retrospective. Photo © Ash Koek
The first half of the show deals with Suchet’s childhood and burgeoning talent, through to his early days at drama school and on to his success as Poirot. We learn that his first taste of the stage came when he was cast as an oyster in the school play, an experience that he clearly relished – instead of entering the auditorium with his back to the audience, in order to show off his costume, Suchet strode across the stage face forward, already seeking the spotlight. It’s touching to hear him recall times where teachers encouraged his talent – he was tasked with the role of Macbeth as a high school student – and more moving still when he eloquently describes the moment when he realised he wanted to pursue acting: standing in a near-empty theatre at 17 years old, watching the scenery coming down around him to ready the stage for the next production. We also get an insight into how meticulous an actor Suchet is when he discusses his preparation for Poirot, taking out a sheaf of handwritten notes describing, for example, the lumps of sugar that the Belgian detective might take in his tea.
But by far the most interesting things discussed are Suchet’s own sense of his place in the industry, particularly in his early drama school days. His public-school education and admittedly conservative upbringing meant that the freewheeling London of the 60s came as something of a culture shock. He recalls wearing his school suit to his very first class at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, which saw him asked to play the part of a newborn baby in an improv class. Similar fish out of water examples follow, including the time he turned up to a movement class in his rugby clothes when the rest of his peers had opted for black leotards instead.
Jane Hutcheon and David Suchet in Poirot and More: A Retrospective. Photo © Ash Koek
Also fascinating are Suchet’s reflections on his relationship with his father, a respected gynaecologist and surgeon who unsurprisingly had qualms about his son’s artistic ambitions. Suspect in its respectability, the actor’s life so confounded him that he hardly ever came to see Suchet perform, something which he speaks about with regret. However, we learn that Suchet’s mother had more than enough enthusiasm to make up for it, and she figures heavily in the show’s first act. We hear how she provoked raucous laughter during one of Suchet’s earliest performances by responding to his onstage dialogue, consisting of two lines – “Mother? Mother?” – and the time she gave him a note on his costume during the interval of a play. Throughout it all, Suchet is an engaging, animated speaker, frequently jumping out of his chair to illustrate a point or assume the gait and bearing of those characters in an anecdote. Warm, curious and relaxed, Jane Hutcheon proves an ideal facilitator.
After interval, Suchet returns to the stage alone to give the audience an insight into the nuts and bolts of performance. Focusing on the works of Shakespeare, he recites passages from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, demonstrating his love of and reverence for language. He also underlines those elements that he believes to be essential in building a character, chief among them voice and carriage. It’s fascinating stuff, and a real treat to see him break down things like voice print and iambic pentameter. Later rejoined by Hutcheon for a more in-depth discussion of Poirot – his clear affection for the role endearing – you leave feeling like you’ve not only learnt a thing or two, but spent time with an old friend as well.
Poirot and More: A Retrospective tours to Melbourne on January 25 and February 13, Sydney on February 7, the Gold Coast on January 29, Brisbane on January 31 and February 1, Newcastle on February 8, and Adelaide on February 11 and 12