Linda Burgess climbs the eternal staircase at the Opera House in Wellington to watch the virtuoso actor. At the interval her legs are aching. But in the second half, magic happens.
There’s one person wearing a face mask, just the one, and it turns his face into a disposable nappy with two scared eyes above. His eyes roam the theatre. Oh hell, is he looking guilty? After interval he’s gone. Just his leaving makes me aware of a tickle in my throat. Oh God, I’m going to cough. Ahem ahem. I’m going to cough and if I do, this mixed group of Wellingtonians and people who’ve come in from the hinterland – well, they could turn, I could be like Simon from Lord of the Flies as they swoop on me in their gold sandals, floral frocks and quirky skirts and hunt the virus, kill the virus, slit its throat.
We’d bought our seats late, on a whim, we’d come in from the garden and driven down to Ticketek, crazy with the knowledge that we live in this city of culture and never go to anything except movies at 3pm on Sundays. We’re going to go to David Suchet – Poirot and More not because – well sort of because – he’s Poirot, but mostly because I saw him a few years back in a documentary about The Orient Express. I liked him. And that was enough for the madcap decision to visit Ticketek. I never expected Robert to agree.
Expensive seats, even though they were up in the gallery, because it was pretty much sold out. The gods, it used to be called, and if I’d remembered that I could well have just continued looking to see if the hydrangeas needed deadheading rather than getting in the car with our credit cards. My thighs will cringe for months at the memory of creeping down those steep steps without even a rail to hold on to. Given the paranoia about health and safety in Wellington, how has the Opera House got away with it? Aren’t several of those even slightly wobbly on their pins – as in, theatre goers in general – cartwheeling involuntarily down those steps on a weekly basis?
We make it to our seats, second row, and it’s hot up there. Oh God it’s hot. Those in the know have brought smart little fans with them, Japanese, Samoan, there’s quite a range. Those mad enough to buy the programmes that their kids are going to have to chuck in the recycling when they die, are using them to create a draught, but those of us too cheap to spend even another cent just sit remembering teaching in a prefab at Palmerston North Girls High in high summer, when our fringe stuck to our forehead and the back of our neck where hair met skin became unbearably damp and sticky.
There’s so little room, it’s economy class Air NZ without the free wine. We’re both quite compact people: how can anyone who’s not a hobbit bear it? There are empty seats behind us and at interval, I crawl on my hands and knees to get somewhere with some space, somewhere, anywhere, that is not directly behind the man with the big head. Ahhh. An aisle seat, I can stick my feet out on the stairs and get a tiny bit comfortable.
A killjoy by nature, I’ve liked the first half, sort of. The audience is thrumming with happy appreciation. I’m in competition with the man in front, murmuring the answers to Suchet’s semi-rhetorical questions in an obnoxiously know-it-all way. The person in the distance, who is Suchet, is quite a presence; he tells a great anecdote and he’s made me laugh, which is a good start. But amusing anecdotes do not an amazing evening make. At the interval we agree that if you compared home on comfy sofa, or in spacious seats at cinema, with being with the real deal, then…
But after the interval – long enough for those prepared to mount those steps to buy posh, enviable iceblocks – things change. My feet are up, which always helps, but best of all, Suchet turns the evening into something precious. He gives us what he was always going to: the “and more”. He moves beyond charming, chuckle-rousing tales of his mother and old dears from Sussex and how people can’t quite work out if Suchet and Poirot are the same person, and he puts himself to work. He gives us a masterclass in how an actor inhabits a role, abandons his own personality and takes on another. How to use a different voice from one’s own, how to use a different walk. He uses heavenly words like alliteration, onomatopoeia and iambic pentameter. He talks about how it’s all there in the script for the actor, if the writer is good enough. Especially if the writer is Shakespeare. He briefly goes bananas when he entreats the entire audience to go home and write, write, clearly unaware that in Wellington everyone already does. There he is, the perfect balance of natural talent, of skill, of insight, imagination and hard hard work.
He explains, he performs; he tells and he shows. He’s Macbeth at the death of his wife. He’s Caliban when his island’s invaded. He is the most majestic talent you could ever hope to see.
I feel sad, I say, that these days there are kids who’ll never do Shakespeare. Thanks to being an English teacher once, I know all those plays, I say, as if he needs to be told. We go back up those bloody awful steps, mentally rejoicing that we’ll never ever see them again, then it’s down, down, down all the stairs – how high we must’ve been! – with just the pressure of the bodies fore and aft holding us upright. Though not just the bodies fore and aft, but that happy floating feeling you get when you’ve had a damn fine time. Been in the presence of genius. Been, as it turns out, a total pushover. And, as a bonus, escaped being quarantined. Out the door, thank God, away from the flood of too many people and too much excited chatter and into the warm, muggy, wet-ish, windy-ish Wellington night.
David Suchet – Poirot and More is in Christchurch tonight and in Auckland on Saturday February 22.