October 5, 2014

BECOMING CANONICAL:

Hercule Poirot and Us (Kaya Genç, October 5th, 2014, Los Angeles Review of Books)

Once Suchet agreed to consider playing the role of Poirot, the first thing he did was to telephone his brother, who had apparently devoted some of his adult life to reading novels by Christie. When asked his opinion about playing Poirot, the older brother (who worked at ITV) replied: "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. I mean, Poirot's a bit of a joke, a buffoon. It's not you at all." This is ironic, given that the silly people in Poirot novels are always misjudging Poirot as a "joke and a buffoon." Instinctively, Suchet took the side of the detective and decided to accept the challenge -- after all, it is an actor's job to impersonate others, even if they are jokes and buffoons. In Scilly Isles, where he traveled to act in a British film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's Why the Whales Came, Suchet had ample time to dip his nose into the canon. The actor had his pencil and notebook ready while he made a list of Poirot's character traits. Those went on to form his "dossier of characteristics," which consists of 93 entries on carefully observed specifics of the detective, from his family history to his favorite beverages.

The first thing one needs to know about Poirot is, of course, his nationality. No, he is not French, but Belgian; poor Poirot had tried hard to correct this, as well as the pronunciation of his surname (not puay-raw, but pwah-roh). Both efforts seem to have failed.

An obsessive drinker of tisane, Poirot wears "pointed, tight, very shiny patent leather shoes" and "bows a great deal -- even when shaking hands." Suchet treats those self-written notes as holy commandments, and stays religiously true to them when he plays the character. As he gets to know this possessor of "the finest brain in Europe" better, he becomes a defender of his legacy and an enemy of those who dare misrepresent him.

The first, and most serious problem, Suchet had to solve before going to the set was to find an appropriate voice for Poirot. "I started experimenting by talking to myself in a whole range of voices, some of them coming from my head -- all nasal and clipped -- others coming from my chest, lower and a little slower, even a little gruff," he recalls. "Nothing sounded quite like the man I had been reading about in bed every night. They all sounded a little false, and that was the very last thing that I wanted."

To get the voice right Suchet listened to Belgian Walloon and French radio recordings. Christie's novels provided details of Poirot's biography: the sleuth was born in Spa, a city located in Belgum's Walloon Region and Province of Liège, and this fact had to be reflected in his speech. After mastering Belgian French, Suchet managed to move the voice from his chest to his head, and ended up sounding "a little more high-pitched and yes, a little more fastidious." Those who have seen any one of the 70 episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot will know that Suchet's voice is perfect; simultaneously gentlemanly, foreign, and cunning.

Having transformed his usual self into Poirot, Suchet extended his perfectionism to the lives of others, and interfered with how crew members did their jobs. However gently and reluctantly, he demanded that they take into consideration his views about Poirot's representation. He objected, for example, to the proposed costume ("a distinctly dull, ordinary grey suit") and asked to be dressed exactly as Christie had dictated, in "a three-piece suit, a wing collar, shiny patent leather shoes and spats." Whenever his stage directions rubbed him the wrong way, convincing him that Poirot would never act that way, he voiced his disagreement. He pointed to passages from the canon to prove his case and during the shoot of the first episodes made clear that unless the desired costumes were provided, he would not play him. He became an expert close reader of Poirot, a kind of New Critic who asked the crew members, professorially, to stop drawing inferences about the sleuth, unless they were based on specific passages in the canon.

In a sense this perfectionism fitted Poirot's, who once asked a waiter to change the two eggs he had ordered because they were not the same size. Both Suchet and Poirot felt like foreigners in England. (Suchet's father's parents were Russian Jews who had to flee the country after the pogroms.) They were both rational men going bald, much to their chagrin. ("I lost a great deal of my hair when I was just twenty-three, after a love affair collapsed," Suchet remembers: "I was heartbroken, and so was my hair. Perhaps the same thing happened to Poirot [...].")

Suchet's search for the perfect voice and costume was followed, naturally, by the search for the perfect moustache.

Posted by at October 5, 2014 6:54 PM
  

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