I’ve often thought the mark of an enjoyable interview is when you ask whoever you’re talking to for a massive favour as the conversation comes to a close... and they don’t put the phone down or walk out.
Truth be told I don’t test this theory that much. By and large it would be considered ‘not the form’ to ask favours of famous people who have already given you a slice of their day. But when I was offered an interview with top British actor David Suchet, I knew I had to leave professional protocol to one side.
My sister-in-law is obsessed with Hercule Poirot – Agatha Christie’s enduring detective who David played to great acclaim for 24 years – and it just so happened that her birthday was coming up. How could I not ask for a special message from her favourite Belgian moustache?
“Oh go on then,” he laughs, before delivering a cracking Bon Anniversaire greeting which will be played on May 17 in our family forever more.
So, we’ve established David Suchet is a thoroughly good egg.
During the 20 minutes which had gone before, I’d also established he was revelling in his latest stage role, Oscar Wilde’s glorious creation, Lady Bracknell from his much-loved masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, which comes to the Theatre Royal in June. “I never thought there was any role for me in it until the producer asked me if I’d play her, out of the blue,” he says. “I had to revisit the play in a completely different way.”
Although David hadn’t considered himself for the iconic part, played by Dame Edith Evans in the 1952 film and Dame Judi Dench in the 2002 remake, getting a male actor to play the ruthless Victorian powerhouse had been tried and tested, thanks to the loudly-applauded efforts of Geoffrey Rush (in an Australian theatre production) and Brian Bedford (in Stratford and on Broadway).
“The thing about Lady Bracknell is that she defies gender,” says the 69-year-old. “It doesn’t matter if she’s played by a man. It really doesn’t. The most important thing is what she represents – this nouveau riche, upper class, Victorian society which has such opinionated opinions,” he continues.
“One is aware of so many famous people having played the role. I’m just very thrilled to have my name added to that list. It’s so gloriously written and I hope to bring her to life. Rehearsals are going well and I’m looking forward to bringing the show to Newcastle.”
Although he has visited many a North East location for film and television shoots in recent years, David says it’s been too long since he graced the boards of the Theatre Royal, which he considers to be “one of the country’s most beautiful theatres”.
“My first visit to Newcastle was way, way, way back in the 70s when the RSC first started coming to Newcastle. I was part of that first spearheading group.
“I remember coming to Newcastle and thinking it was a wonderful city. I had some friends who were at the Playhouse and I went to the People’s Theatre too – I had a lovely time.
“I think I played in Richard II as Bollingbroke and I may also have done the King of Navarre in Love Labour’s Lost... and there’s a chance I played the Fool in King Lear as well, but I couldn’t be sure. Forgive me.”
Of course we forgive him – not being able to remember the details of every role you’ve played on Tyneside for the RSC is an occupational hazard for anyone who’s had the kind of career David has enjoyed.
One of Britain’s most respected actors, he is winner of an International Emmy award, has been nominated for numerous Olivier, Tony, RTS and Bafta awards throughout his career, and was awarded the CBE in 2010.
Although best known for starring in all 74 of the aforementioned Poirot dramas, he has maintained a steady presence on both stage and screens of varying sizes during 46 years in the job in productions such as Oleanna, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and The Last Confession, on stage and Henry VIII, Dracula, Oppenheimer, Maxwell and The Way We Live Now on screen. Most recently he has completed tours of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and the Arthur Miller classic, All My Sons.
But after all these years, is it Lady Bracknell who has offered him the first chance to wear a dress on stage? He laughs for rather a long time. “You ask that as if I have many dresses I wear off stage!
“Yes, this is the first time... and yes there will be a corset,” (as the photo above bears testament). “It’s going to be a lovely traditional, sumptuous telling of this play. I want people to have a lovely evening, to look on beauty and to share in great fun and laughter.
“It is a glorious play and if we get it right, you’re in for a wonderful evening because it’s undoubtedly one of England’s finest satirical comedies,” he adds, echoing the widely held opinion of those in the know.
A top drawer satire on Victorian manners, the story is concerned with the lives of two bachelor friends, upper crust dandy Algernon Moncrieff and the most reliable John Worthing J.P. who lead double lives to court the attentions of the desirable Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew.
But lying in the bed they’ve made for themselves, the gallants must then grapple with the uproarious consequences of their ruse... and deal with the formidable Lady Bracknell who never shies from sharing her opinions on society, marriage, religion, money, illness, death, and respectability in her own inimitable manner. “She has some of the longest sentences that I’ve ever had to say in my 46 years as an actor,” laughs David, who says he has loved every production of ‘Earnest he has seen – and there have been many. “Wilde is asking for a fairly rapid delivery. There are many more commas than there are full stops. I’m very much enjoying her rhythm.”
Having signed up to the play until November (it’s scheduled to go into the West End at the end of June), David is happy to wait and see what’s next – if a little sad that there will never be another Poirot to look forward to.
“I miss him, of course I do. He will always be a part of my life and my memory. It’s like when someone dies. You’re no longer with them and to a large extent you learn to not think about them, but they’re never far away.”
The Importance of Being Earnest plays Newcastle Theatre Royal from June 8-13. For tickets, call 08448 11 21 21 or visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk