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From Poirot to the mysterious death of a Pope

The Last Confession delves into the most highly guarded institution in the world to explore the mystery shrouding the sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

John Haines/Mirvish Productions

With a rock-star Pope shaking up the Vatican, the timing couldn't be better for a revival of The Last Confession, a political thriller about another charismatic papal reformer whose brief rule was tragically cut short. Roger Crane's play, which begins performances Saturday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, focuses on Pope John Paul I, whose 33-day reign in 1978 was marked by public popularity and controversial acts, and whose untimely death at 65, officially by heart attack, has prompted various conspiracy theories.

Reading Crane's play, first presented in 2007 at the Chichester Festival in Britain, you're struck by the similarities between John Paul I and the current Pope Francis. John Paul, formerly Albino Luciani, was also a humble man who disliked pomp, charmed the people – he was dubbed "The Smiling Pope" – and held some surprisingly progressive views. His papacy might also have been a game-changer had it not ended so abruptly.

That possibility isn't lost on The Last Confession's star, David Suchet. In fact, "Francis is actually the continuation of John Paul I," says the distinguished British actor, best known on this side of the pond as the impeccable embodiment of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. "In a sense Francis has taken over from him, at a time when the Catholic Church needs a great liberal again."

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In the play, Suchet portrays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, the power behind the throne who helps the dark horse Luciani (Richard O'Callaghan) get elected and then later, Poirot-like, investigates his suspicious death. The Pope's plans for Vatican reform had included sending some of its most powerful cardinals and bishops into exile. Benelli, like the play's other characters, is a real historical figure and did indeed hold an internal investigation. "What he found out, he was going to publish," Suchet says. "What stopped him from publishing it, we don't know – that's where the play takes over."

Suchet originated the role of Benelli in the Chichester production, which transferred to London's West End. When the producers approached him to revisit the show for this international tour, which kicks off in Toronto and plays Los Angeles and major cities in Australia, he couldn't resist. For one thing, the actor was just wrapping up his longest-running gig. The broadcast last fall of Curtain, the final Poirot mystery, ended a truly Herculean effort that had him playing the fastidious little Belgian detective in 70 television episodes over 25 years.

"I told them I'd love to do the play again," Suchet recalls over the phone from a London rehearsal hall. "And it would also be a chance for me to travel to all these English-speaking nations that have supported me as Poirot over 25 years, both to show them another side of my work and also to say thank you."

The 67-year-old Suchet has spent the bulk of his career in the theatre. An alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in recent years he's starred in acclaimed West End productions of All My Sons and Long Day's Journey Into Night. On Broadway, he gave a Tony Award-nominated performance as Salieri in the 1999 revival of Amadeus.

Suchet is quick to acknowledge a resemblance between Amadeus and The Last Confession, the first produced play by New York lawyer-turned-playwright Crane. Like Amadeus, Crane's tale of rivalry and intrigue is framed as a confession, with the ailing Benelli declaring to his confessor that he's guilty of killing John Paul I. The play has a special appeal to Suchet, however, in its depiction of the Cardinal as a spiritual man wrestling with his human failings.

"Benelli's moments of doubt and introspection I understand very well," says the actor, who is of Jewish heritage but became an Anglican at 40. "His belief in Christianity never wavers, but his faith in himself is another matter. That's where we all fail. That's where I fail every day – the belief in myself fails, not the belief in the religion I want to follow. It's self-doubt, or what St. John of the Cross called the 'dark night of the soul.' Benelli would have known all about that."

Suchet recently realized a long-held ambition as both an actor and a Christian, by recording the entire Bible as a series of audio books. He found the feat, which took a total of about 200 hours, to be an enriching experience. "Most people I have spoken to, both with faith and those without faith, have never read it from cover to cover," he says. "It really is an extraordinary collection of writings. I'll never be a biblical scholar, but I feel I know it much better now."

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That project and The Last Confession have been welcome diversions as Suchet deals with the loss of his long-time alter ego. While he hasn't found himself absent-mindedly slipping into a Belgian accent, or fingering a non-existent waxed mustache, Suchet is still getting over Poirot's passing. "I can quite honestly say that I miss him, in a very deep way," he says quietly. "If you get to know a character that well over 25 years, it's like your best friend dying, isn't it? But as with all things, time will heal, and that's another reason for doing this play."

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