Photo credit: David Suchet (Photo by Ash Koek)

'David Suchet - Poirot and More, A Retrospective' review — a series of indulgent discussions reveal all

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
Sweet but wildly overlong, of interest but also indulgent, David Suchet - Poirot and More: A Retrospective has pitched up for several weeks in the West End, its socially distanced nature ideally suited to these skittish, nervous-making times. And whom better to spend an evening with than Hercule Poirot himself, the actor-knight Sir David Suchet here glimpsed in conversation with Geoffrey Wansell in an evening of reminiscence and instruction that doesn't stray far from a clearly reined-in script.
Rather like Ian McKellen at this same theatre in autumn 2019, Suchet combs through carefully curated highlights of his career, only after the interval to give us a Shakespeare master class that allows this onetime mainstay of the Royal Shakespeare Company to illustrate the various "Highway Codes" necessary to crack open the Bard. We hear before the interval about a career trajectory that saw him back in the day graduating from dressing room 12A to 1A due to promotion within the Shakespearean ranks. (Originally cast as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Oliver in As You Like It at the RSC nearly 50 years ago, Suchet was handed the plum roles of Mercutio and Orlando when a colleague fell ill.)
In the second half, we then get set pieces from, among others, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, all of which are intended to display Suchet's apprenticeship into Shakespeare at the side of the legendary scholar and textual expert John Barton: technically adroit to be sure, these recitations nonetheless felt to me like a rhetorical display first, a revelation of character a distant second. We're also reminded of Suchet's Salieri in Amadeus, which he played in London and on Broadway, and, strangely, of his performance in a contemporary play called The Last Confession, a gaseous potboiler from 2007 that is best forgotten. The actor mentions, though without naming the specific critic, the dismissal he received from The New York Times when he opened Amadeus in New York. That slight was put right - he reminds us, in keeping with the workings of Broadway - once Suchet got a Tony nomination for that very performance and audience perception changed. And to his credit, Suchet is exceedingly gracious about his Amadeus co-star, Michael Sheen.
Wansell, a longtime friend of the actor, makes for an agreeable if none-too-demanding interlocutor and after a while you yearn for something to shake the evening up. We hear nothing about the actor's attraction to the American repertoire that has seen him move over the years from Mamet (Oleanna) to O'Neill (Long Day's Journey Into Night) and on to Miller (All My Sons and The Price). And though it was a notable flop at the time, I doubt I'm alone in wondering what he might have to say about the Kevin Spacey-directed Complicit, starring an out-of-his-depth Richard Dreyfuss, in which Suchet co-starred at the Old Vic in 2009. Here, as elsewhere, you feel the absence of any participation from the audience, whom Suchet mostly engages to ask whether we know who, for instance, Sigmund Freud was (heaven help us if people these days don't, but who's to say?) Family chronicles are limited to a funny if rather predictable story of his mother being overly maternal, and, more movingly, of his father, a distinguished doctor, reveling only in senescence in his son's astounding success. Some queries from the audience might not be a bad idea. 
There's a genuinely funny Prince Philip story which wins the evening's best anecdote award hands down, and the crowd all but coos with satisfaction when Suchet produces the moustache that kept him in televisual business as the Belgian detective across a quarter-century. He reveals the process necessary to acquire Poirot's signature voice and gait, but what does he think of seeing that part handed on more recently to the likes of Kenneth Branagh? Suchet isn't letting on, beyond reporting that it was difficult to act the onscreen death of a character who over time had become so inextricably a part of himself.
The show needs cutting and shaping while surely destined simply to be what it is: a genial trip down memory lane in the company of someone disinclined to dig too deep. We glean scant knowledge of his children beyond a photo of a son, and too little is made of the once-bustling career of his wife, Sheila and why it was so clearly put on hold when she and David married: Their courtship amounted to "love at first bite", given that Suchet was appearing as Renfield in Dracula at the time.  
As one who saw this actor in Othello opposite Ben Kingsley, I love his description of Iago as "the biggest mass murderer in Shakespeare" and was riveted by the distinction he makes in the theatre between directing and dictating when it comes to those who take a production's reins. We hear of his first so-called performance playing an oyster at age eight but, oddly, not of his own return to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Pinter at the Pinter season pre-pandemic - in which he was superb.  On its own terms, the evening, clocking in at 2 hours 40 minutes one recent night, certainly offers bang for the buck, but one has the curious sense at the audience-pleasing finish that much that is essential about this fine actor has never been communicated at all.

Photo credit: David Suchet (Photo by Ash Koek)

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