David Suchet: ‘Actors owe it to their fans to tour’
David Suchet isn’t an actor shy of reading his reviews. (He invariably has no reason not to). But it was one review of his last West End appearance in 2012 of Long Day’s Journey into Night that alerted him to something that he’d been neglecting: stage comedy.
He’s sitting opposite me in the deserted dress circle bar at the Vaudeville on a sunny lunchtime, where he has just opened in something duly lighter – but also somewhat unexpected.
“I’ve been desperately searching for a comedy to do. I’m sent about three a year, but they’re never right. Then my producer, Kim Poster – this is the fourth show I’m doing with her – came up to me about a year ago and said: ‘I’ve got an idea – the greatest comedy in the English language of the last couple of hundred years.’ It was The Importance of Being Earnest. I looked at her and I said, ‘So? I’m far too old for the boys, and I’m not going to be Chasuble or Lane or one of the manservants, I assume’. She replied, ‘No, that’s quite right, but what about the women?’ I said, ‘You can’t be serious! Lady Bracknell, me?’ And she said, ‘Why not? You’re desperate for a comedy and I think you’d be wonderful’.”
He thought for a moment and told her he couldn’t answer her right away.
“I’ve seen the play about 50 times in my life – who hasn’t? – but I had to go and read it. When I did, I started laughing out loud on the page, which is very rare for an actor reading a play that was written in 1895. And I realised, how can I say no?”
There is, of course, a West End precedent, but it’s hardly a flattering one for a straight actor: back in 1987, Hinge and Bracket – a drag act that went mainstream – did the play at the Whitehall, with Bracket playing Lady Bracknell and Hinge Miss Prism. Instead, Suchet recalls more recent outings of the play in Australia and Canada, with Geoffrey Rush and Brian Bedford respectively. The latter went on to transfer to Broadway, where he was Tony-nominated.
“So I realised I wasn’t going to break new ground, and my head wasn’t above the parapet. Still, for me to become a woman was still going to be a stretch: look at me, I’m a rugby player bloke.” He looks at me in turn, and adds, “I’m your build – we’re short, we’re stocky.”
But the part proved too good to resist. “I just couldn’t say no to one of the greatest comedy roles ever written, irrespective of it being a woman.” (This is, of course, an interesting echo on women who hanker to play the great Shakespearean roles like Richard II and Falstaff, as Fiona Shaw did at the National and Ashley McGuire did at the Donmar Warehouse respectively).
But Suchet still had to persuade himself that it was apt casting for the play.
“So I started researching Oscar Wilde and the play. I don’t remember where he said this, but somewhere he said it is a sexless play – he subtitled it as a trivial comedy for serious people, and it’s clear he was satirising a class-based society and having great fun with it. And when I started rehearsing the play, I realised that the gender of the character suddenly diminished. What he was doing with the character was to make her a representative of something that happened a lot then, and still happens today. There’s a line in the play that is often cut, in which she says, ‘When I married Lord Bracknell, I had no fortune of any kind, but I never dreamed of allowing it to stand in my way’. She represents the nouveau riche woman who gets herself into society by marriage, and as a result of being nouveau, was even more upmarket and upper class than those who came from old money. Society was being driven by these new middle-upper-class people who married into it.”
That unlocked a key to the language the character uses: “I realised that is why her language was written in such an elevated way. She has the longest sentences I’ve ever had to speak in my life. But she’s also quite dim and not very clever. She didn’t have the benefit of a good schooling. And suddenly the character fell into a box for me that I had a chance of portraying; this woman who was more elevated than her class, and was also enormously powerful. No man could stand a chance around her.”
Thus the character could easily join the parts he’s played in more serious plays.
“Look at what I’ve done – Oleanna, George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Amadeus, All My Sons, Long Day’s Journey into Night – these are big, stonking, great, heavy, wonderful theatre roles, full of tragedy, pain and anguish.”
By contrast, Earnest is, of course, a comedy, but there’s seriousness, too.
It also fits perfectly into where Suchet discovered early on in his career he sits best as an actor. “For my first few years I thought I’d play young leads, but it was never in my bag, and it caused me a certain frustration. But I’m not a leading man, I’m a leading character actor, and as soon as I realised that, I knew my place and I was happy.”
It has stood him in good stead, not least for the role that has brought him his greatest celebrity and has formed the biggest part of his career: Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. He’s played the part in TV versions of every story she wrote in which the character appears – “There’s nothing else to do and I’ve died already on screen!” In the process, he’s been seen in the role by an estimated 760 million viewers worldwide.
He’s finished with it now. “I’ve said I’ll only return if anyone makes a movie and they want me – which they won’t, because it’ll be Hollywood, and they’ll want one of the new A listers,” he says with a shrug.
TV has brought him celebrity, of course, but the theatre is still home. “When I started acting and realised that TV was really coming up, I knew I must embrace it to become an actor of profile in the theatre, radio, TV and film.”
But theatre matters most. Talking about his quarter of a century with Poirot, he says, “Thank God I did a play every 18 months or so. But he’s a character that really created my profile to allow me to do these wonderful theatre roles in the West End.”
He started his professional career as a stage actor more than 40 years ago, as an acting ASM at Chester in 1969, after originally acting for the National Youth Theatre while paying his way by driving antique dealers around London. One of the productions he did for the NYT was Coriolanus, which the company took to Chichester, before it opened officially as the home of the then-nascent National Theatre, to test the theatre out “before Larry [Olivier] took over”.
He returned to Chichester eight years ago, this time starring in a new play called The Last Confession, which subsequently transferred to the Haymarket, then toured to Toronto, Los Angeles and around Australia.
“When the producers Paul Elliott and Duncan Weldon came to me and said they wanted to take it to Toronto and LA, I said, ‘What for?’ That’s not a huge theatregoing audience. I said the one country that has kept Poirot alive for me, and sent letters of support and complaint to ITV when they threatened to cancel it, was Australia – I have millions of fans there, and I said I’ll only do it if we went there.”
That commitment and impulse to tour – both nationally and internationally – has always been a priority for Suchet and, prior to the West End run, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest also duly completed an extensive national tour.
“I’m going to say something that may offend a lot of other actors, but it is my ethos and belief as an actor, deep down in my very DNA, that actors should tour.
“That’s what we were born to do – to go around and be travelling players. When you reach a certain level, which I have reached and I have an audience who wants to see me, what a conceit it would be to say, ‘I don’t tour anymore, people must come and see me in the West End’. That, (a) makes London elitist which it must never become; (b) a lot of people who can never afford London will not see my work; and (c) which is just as important, I will never meet them. It is imperative that any actor who has any profile at all must embrace the tour and go out to meet the people who love him or her and want to show their appreciation. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there. I mean this with all my heart. If I’ve caused offence, I apologise; but the regions are so hungry for good plays to tour, and we must do it. It’s who I am.”
And now he’s a woman. It has entailed, he says, a lot of practice: “I had proper deportment classes and lessons in how to wear a long dress and walk in one and turn without holding it. It took hours of practice until it is second nature now. I read a book of manners, in which I learnt about what women would do about taking their gloves off, and spoke to a movement master in period drama about how a woman should lead with their left or right shoulder, not sit straight ahead, because it is far more alluring.”
Then there’s the voice. “I had to learn where to put the voice and avoid the pantomime dame. You can’t go into falsetto – if you do, you’re dead. All I can do is elevate my voice to get rid of the male vibration, and go into my upper register before the break.”
The hard work, he says, has paid off. “It seems to have worked so far. Every night is the hugest of huge challenges and I never know how I’m going to be accepted. Every night before the show I sit there and pray and say, ‘Please accept her and try to forget me’.”
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