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British actor David Suchet

David Suchet: My hunt for Saint Peter

photo by Martin Kemp // BBC/CTVC

David Suchet // The Telegraph

A few of weeks ago I was in Rome finishing filming my documentary about the life of Saint Peter. After buying a borsellino at the market, I made my way to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo to see the best image ever painted of the apostle: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Caravaggio.

It was disappointingly dark in the chapel. I’d forgotten you have to put money in a slot machine for the painting to be illuminated. I got a euro out and popped it in, and of course I was so close to the image that when the light went whoosh, I was completely knocked backwards. It moved me to tears.

In it, Peter’s crucifix is being turned upside down — he asked that his cross be inverted so as not to imitate Christ. The painting scandalised people in Caravaggio’s day because he showed the apostle as a man: a complex, fragile human being. Above all, it’s the expression on Peter’s face as he looks up at his hand that is so moving. What is he thinking, I wonder — and what was Caravaggio trying to say? Actors try to read gestures (like that) very closely.

I am a Christian and have always been interested in Saint Peter and Saint Paul (who was the subject of my previous BBC documentary). But I’m not trying to evangelise. I’m just trying to bring to people one of the most extraordinary men that ever lived — albeit 2,000 years ago.

It’s all too easy to think “oh, Peter was a saint who went to prison, did some healing, made a few mistakes and became the first Bishop of Rome”, and then go have a cup of tea. But there’s so much more to it. Whether you’re a person of faith or not doesn’t matter.

The bible stories changed our culture, our world view. They’re also terrific — full of flawed characters like Peter who, in a moment of fear and weakness, would betray Jesus, denying he knew him three times when he was arrested after the Last Supper.

The founder of the Roman Catholic church, Peter is one of the most influential figures in the creation of Western civilisation. As such, we tend to perceive him as an unreachable, holier-than-thou character. No. He was human. That’s why I like him, because he’s one of us. I see him as an impulsive, impetuous, hard-bitten Middle Eastern man with big, rough fisherman’s hands and a huge heart.

His character and what motivated him has always intrigued me. How did this humble, probably illiterate family man from a small fishing village in the ar**-end of the Roman Empire become the first Bishop of Rome? Why is he the most talked about figure in the New Testament aside from Jesus?

Why did he leave his family and a fairly successful business to follow a man who claimed to be the messiah, even though — as the Bible tells us — he doubted Jesus right up until the Resurrection? Why did he throw himself into the formation of this tiny movement that was struggling for survival against all odds at great danger to his life? And how on earth did he convert 3,000 Jewish men gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost with a single sermon? 3,000 men in one go — what a performance!

The process I go through in finding an answer to these questions is exactly the same as the research I do when I’m given a part. I started in Galilee, once the tiny Hellenistic village where Peter was brought up, where scholars are able to glean a decent amount of information about his early life, through archeological evidence including a 1st-century fishing boat that still survives.

The region is still surprisingly unspoiled. I was able to see pretty much the exact view of the shore where Peter would have first seen Jesus from his fishing boat before jumping into the water and swimming to shore to meet him.

Armed with the stories from the New Testament, standing in places where Peter is said to have stood, I started to feel I was getting a psychological grasp of what drove him.

The moment I treasure was being allowed into a yeshiva bocher in Israel, a Jewish school with a vast room full of young men at tables reading the scriptures, talking passionately, debating loudly. A young student explained the reason they all rocked back and forth as they studied was because, “you get excited, you get happy”. It’s such a contrast to how we perceive Bible classes in the West.

As an actor, I’m inclined to think that Jesus, as a Middle Eastern Jew, would have been very voluble with his hands. I wonder what was he doing, for example, when he told Peter “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”.

It’s one of the most debated sentences in the Bible, but only an actor would wonder “what was he doing with his gestures — pointing at precisely what or whom?” Having said that, I wouldn’t play Peter on screen or stage. I’m not a natural Peter. I have an intellect that reins me in; Peter just jumps out the boat. As I read him, Peter wasn’t well-educated or intelligent like Paul. I like him because he was smitten, immediately — as you would be — by this man who came to him and told him: you are Peter, my rock.

The Bible was one hell of a bold narrative, to portray Jesus’s followers not in the heroic mode but as vulnerable and fallible as we are.

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© 2012. Design by Daria Pichugina
© 2001—2014. Texts by Daria Pichugina, Adelka
© 2001—2014. Translated by Adelka, Kim Dolce, Elena Ukhina et al.

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