The whole sleuth…
REVIEW: David Suchet, Poirot and more: A retrospective (Malvern Theatres, Sunday, December 12).
YOU could say it was an example of a good omen at work when the eight-year-old David Suchet first trod the boards in his school play.
The monochrome photograph displayed on the big screen at the Forum theatre was showing the young would-be thespian sitting in front of an enormous oyster shell.
And how symbolically prophetic this would prove to be, for the world would later literally become his oyster, thanks to his mastery of the role of Agatha Christie’s great detective.
But this was not just an unforgettable evening for Poirot addicts, because he did in fact have a distinguished theatrical past life before becoming the diminutive Belgian sleuth. And that is what gradually and entertainingly unfolded on this blustery December night.
Widely regarded as one of England’s finest stage, screen and TV actors, David Suchet’s international reputation has only grown over the years, greatly enhanced by his definitive interpretation of Christie’s suave Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, a character he played for nearly 25 years in various TV episodes between 1988 and 2013.
But it would prove to be a long journey before he would tweak that famous moustache, brush some imaginary dust from the shoulder of his immaculately tailored overcoat, and shuffle along with that silver-topped walking cane. The story goes like this…
After boarding school, he followed up an early enthusiasm for acting, and was given a membership with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the age of 16.
He then studied for three years at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and, after a period in repertory work, became a company member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, where he evolved into one of its most dominant players.
The evening started with a seated Suchet, talking to us like a favourite uncle, relating the key points of his life. We learnt of his teacher’s faith in the young boy’s acting ability, which spurred him on to consider the acting profession as being a viable prospect.
No life story would be complete without a near stage ‘death’ experience, and Suchet related a particular night of terror with humour and humility. He told the story of how, when playing the part of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, the fight scene between the rivals descended into farce.
So there was Tybalt in all his macho fury, sword and dagger held high, ready to engage in mortal combat. Benvolio charges at him… and then promptly trips, goes buttocks over breast, and crashes to the deck.
Nevertheless, still optimistic that a duel can still be had, Suchet’s Tybalt raises his rapier, only to see it fold up before his very eyes. He shouts to the backstage props man: “A sword, a sword!” and then a wag in the audience answers: “My kingdom for a sword!”
Suchet may indeed be the very personification of high culture, but he still a showman right down to his patent shoes, for this was a night laced with much humour, a potpourri of delights that kept us spellbound throughout.
This was all fascinating stuff, anecdote following anecdote, as we learnt of a life well-lived. From his first television movie A Tale of Two Cities in 1980, we built up to his portrayals of French emperor Napoleon in Sabotage! vampire nemesis Van Helsing in Dracula, and Robert Maxwell in Maxwell.
The second half proved to be a master class, not only of Shakespearian acting technique, but was also a lesson in how English is so uniquely suitable for stage and film dramas.
He talked about the inherent rhythms that populate the language, of iambic pentameters, onomatopoeia, and alliteration, which at face value might seem to be rather lofty considerations for a Sunday night out, yet were made eminently palatable, thanks to the clarity of his diction and delivery. But perhaps the most heart-warming tale delivered by this master of storytelling was his account of meeting future wife, actress Sheila Ferris, at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
It was a case of love at first sight, he said. And many years and two children later, that marriage would appear to have been just as enduring as that of Poirot himself, the little detective who famously won a nation’s heart.
Pictured: The super sleuth signs a book for
super fan Amy Beck of Worcester.