7 March 2010

Steven Purcell's King Lear **

King Lear is probably my favourite Shakespeare play. In his splendid essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (which I strongly commend to you), George Orwell wrote the following:

“Shut your eyes and think of King Lear, if possible without calling to mind any of the dialogue. What do you see? Here at any rate is what I see; a majestic old man in a long black robe, with flowing white hair and beard, a figure out of Blake’s drawings (but also, curiously enough, rather like Tolstoy), wandering through a storm and cursing the heavens, in company with a Fool and a lunatic. Presently the scene shifts and the old man, still cursing, still understanding nothing, is holding a dead girl in his arms while the Fool dangles on a gallows somewhere in the background.”

For me, Shakespeare’s genius twist is to take a Lear of stately raiment, his white head seeming to embody the archetype of the Wise Old Man. Yet Lear is a man-child, the emotional fool who has “ever but slenderly known himself”, who reaps the disastrous harvest of his lack of self-awareness. His best laid kingly plans go catastrophically agley. Despite speaking with a rich old authoritative accent, the daemon in his mouth utters the misjudging words that condemn. As his world and worldview uncogs and spins remorselessly out of kilter, Fortune’s wheel of fire lobs him from King into broken wreck. From past dignity of robes and crowns he crashes naked at the feet of Being. His wildness spent, all he is fit for is a soft-speaking Quietism, a peace of prison cells and listless musing. When his (to my mind grotesquely self-abnegating) daughter Cordelia jerks her last at the end of a rope, his heart bursts unsmilingly.

Coincidentally, I recently saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s generally excellent performance of the play at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Greg Hicks as Lear. All of which corresponded with the unravelling narrative on Steven Purcell over the past seven days. Or, for the press tragedians in the audience, his fall. Hopefully this Sunday’s headlines will prove its last Act. There are a number of Shakespearean touches – a soaked protagonist, anguish, paranoia, the loss of control, a collapsing façade, the naked reality of a personality exposed. Reading the two key articles in the Scotsman on Sunday and the Sunday Herald, which correspond on most particulars, I’m left by an overwhelming sense that the surrounding actors and supporting cast are positioning themselves for the dénouement.

The debacle is most obviously a disaster for the man himself. Equally significantly, others clearly have their own reputations to protect. Both for general probity, but also in the tribal politics of Scottish Labour, to demonstrate their sagacity, despite their advice being ignored. Why, otherwise, would it be worth letting it be known, discreetly of course, that …“Councillor Jim Coleman, Mr Purcell’s deputy at the council, who wanted fuller disclosure, refused to put his name to the incomplete statement” (Sunday Herald) . Or the slippery asides at the end of Eddie Barnes’ piece, gently minimising Purcell’s role in the Cooncil and emphasising Labour’s overall control, reasonableness – and bemusement in the face of their leader’s implosion. Crucially, this stratagem relies on harping on the string of personal tragedy. While they apparently aren’t willing to demonstrate much solidarity for their crushed brethren, they’ll be quite content for the tale to turn on an account of a lonely, isolated existential crisis for Purcell, while busily, slyly distinguishing his private collapse from the wider Labour political movement.

It is not that the accounts of Purcell’s vanity, his playing up, his desire to be the centre of attention necessarily ring false. Rather, we ought to ask ourselves why these issues are being aired now. Moreover, it is sometimes tempting to forget that articles are based on sources, on loose tongues which wag to their own agendas, however benevolently or regretfully they couch their devastatingly killer quotes. Talking about the scandal in individual, psychological and even addictive terms will precisely suit Scottish Labour down to the ground. It leaves the wider, social net uncast and the mire of West Coast Labour politics undredged. One also wonders about Purcell’s gunning lawyer Peter Watson of Levy & McCrae and media-man Jack Irvine who play Poor Tom and the Fool to Purcell’s Lear respectively. Although I have no personal knowledge of either personality, lets just assume these are men who both commercially and personally set a high store on their reputation for competence as hard-nosed media managers. Justifying the stonking invoices and coaxing other miserable public figures across the threshold might prove rather harder after their recent, less than stellar escapades on behalf of the ex-Councillor.

Either way, don't let yourself be too fully beguiled by backstage Scottish Labour 'Learing' of Purcell. This tale has far wider implications.


  1. Beguilingly prescient. I suggest this as the musical accompaniment. In a non-homophobic manner.


  2. Brilliant post, just brilliant

  3. What is your take that Peter Watson and Jack Irvine are currently en route to the Cayman Isles (allegedly) for a spot of vacation after a particularly stressful time?

  4. Mark...

    And the prize for best Gag involving Steven Purcell and a Baroque Composer goes to ... !

  5. Joan,

    Pleased to have diverted! Justifying a Shakespearean spiel was the most fun from my point of view, but then I'm tedious and tangential that way!

  6. Anonymous,

    I'm not sure if I have one - save for noting that it seems more then curious that they'd both happen to be going to the same spot at exactly the same juncture! Then again, one of the lessons of the murky narratives which have appeared in the press this weekend is how tightly knotted together various, apparently distinct, people really are.

    And to indulge in my intellectually snobbish side, I should mention that their choice of destination is tedious testament to the crassness of monied Scottish bourgeois social capital in action.

  7. ...and they have to launder that cash somewhere...

  8. I agree there's a 'useful' mythological element of fate in the fall of the king. (Though one element not so easily accommodated to it is the pitiful death of Danus McKinlay).