David Suchet talks ‘The Last Confession,’ papal parallels and his own faith

By Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – British actor David Suchet, star of the long-running detective series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” is reprising his role as Giovanni Cardinal Benelli in the papal play “The Last Confession” for an international tour that kicks off Saturday in Toronto.

Running at Mirvish Productions’ Royal Alexandra Theatre, the Roger Crane show looks at the circumstances surrounding the mysterious 1978 death of John Paul I, who was pope for only 33 days.

Suchet, a British Academy Television Award nominee, first starred in the project in 2007 at the Chichester Festival Theatre and then at Theatre Royal Haymarket in London.

On the world tour, the 67-year-old stars alongside London native Richard O’Callaghan under the direction of Jonathan Church.

Suchet talked to The Canadian Press about the show and his character, who was a close friend of John Paul I.

CP: Since your initial reading of the script 10 years ago, a lot has changed — we’ve had different popes and the current one seems to be more in line with the pontiff depicted in this story.

Suchet: If you look at John Paul I, who was commonly known as the People’s Pope or … the Smiling Pope … he was a very liberal pope. He was going to do many, many things. He was addressing contraception … he was going to look into possible areas of allowing, in certain circumstances, euthanasia … and even women in the church. He was going to readdress that. … Of course the conservatives didn’t like it and then after his death, we have … on the surface a liberal pope because he agreed with … the Second Vatican Council, which was going to be much more liberal, which was supported by John Paul II.

John Paul II turned out to be a less liberal pope than people may have suspected, and then after his death we got Benedict, who was very, very conservative and was not happy, not happy at all, and he was very elderly and very ill and he still is. He’s a very, very dear man, but I think all that child abuse scandal got too much for the church at that time.

And we have Pope Francis, we have the People’s Pope back, we have the Smiling Pope back. … We have the pope that won’t live in the papal apartments, who travels on public transport and is driving the conservatives bananas again. We have almost an identical situation.

CP: Who has been in your audience?

Suchet: We get such a variety of audiences. To go back to 2007 when it was on in the West End, every audience you could see the little white … what we call dog collars, of clergy. We had the bishops from the Catholic church, we had the bishop of London, we had the Archbishop of Canterbury. Catholic denominations, Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, everybody streamed in to see the show because the show isn’t a religious play. It’s a political play as much as anything else. It’s a play about politics.

CP: Tell us about your recent trip to the Vatican (to film a documentary on the life of St. Peter).

Suchet: I met the curator of the Sistine Chapel and we actually filmed in there. I was the only person there. What a privilege. … I lay on the floor without anybody around me and just stared up at the ceiling and I was there for about 10 minutes, all on my own, in the Sistine Chapel. It is an absolutely extraordinary experience.

CP: What was your faith growing up?

Suchet: I had no faith growing up at all. I am a great mixed bag. I have Eastern European blood. I’m half Lithuanian and my bloodline in that respect was Lithuanian-Jewish and the other half of my bloodline is pure Brit from Kent, and my mother was Church of England. So when the family married, the women in my family, going back a couple of generations now, the Jewish line of my family that came from Lithuania and then to South Africa and then to England, they all met English girls and Church of England or Anglican girls, and that was the end of the Jewish faith because the Jewish faith comes through the mother.

I was brought up as … agnostic, but brought up within the Anglican tradition. … In 1986 at the age of 40, for some reason or another I went through a conversion experience from nothing. … I think I was always searching for something just beyond what is because I was always rather disillusioned by what is, and I certainly knew … by the age of 18 when I started investigating all this, I certainly was never going to be a humanist. When I looked at the world and what we were doing to the world and how we treated each other and the cruelty that’s in the world, I would never, ever become a humanist.

So there was something else, there must be something better, there must be something beyond. Otherwise, why are we here? And at the age of 40 I had a religious conversion, which took me to Christianity … and that’s what I am today.

CP: What does your involvement with this play mean for your outlook on your faith?

Suchet: The struggle of faith, the loss of faith, the regaining of faith, the doubt, all that I’ve been through and it’s not going to end either. That’s the journey, that’s the path, and my character goes through that very journey through the play.

CP: Has there been any reaction from the Vatican to this play?

Suchet: No. … But when I was in London I got many, many letters from Roman Catholics saying what a wonderful evening they’d had and how it opened up their eyes to a different side of the Vatican than they may have been used to.

(Answers have been edited and condensed.)

Follow @VictoriaAhearn on Twitter.

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