Bruce Purchase: Potent presence on the British stage

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The Independent Online

A large-scale personality, burly and often bearded, and blessed with a richly expressive voice, Bruce Purchase could be a remarkably potent presence on stage.

Born in New Zealand, he won a scholarship to study acting in England. After training at Rada he worked in repertory, including a spell at Liverpool Playhouse, before auditioning successfully for Laurence Olivier, then assembling his first National Theatre Company at the Old Vic. Purchase appeared initially in walk-on roles or understudying but soon made his mark; he was especially impressive as a cockily cunning Balthasar in Franco Zeffirelli's exuberant version of Much Ado About Nothing (1965) with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens.

Purchase also spent some time as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, although he was rarely given worthwhile roles, and he was part of a distinguished company at the Mermaid Theatre for a revelatory The Tempest (1970) directed by Jonathan Miller as an allegory of early colonialism (Ariel, Caliban and the goddesses – singing the Masque to brilliant Monteverdi pastiche from Carl Davies – were all outstanding black performers) with Graham Crowden a mesmerising Prospero and Purchase an intriguingly smiling and duplicitous Sebastian.

The Mermaid's gloriously eccentric and sometimes wayward founder-director Bernard Miles took greatly to Purchase. Miles had a long-nourished dream to repeat his 1940s Iago (to the Moor of the great émigré Frederick Valk) and cast Purchase in the title role of Othello (1971).

He had the right commanding physique and voice for the role, but it was Purchase's misfortune – as he would on occasion gleefully recall – to find himself as the centre of a woefully inept and appallingly designed production. Far too old for Iago ("ancient" took on an unfortunately literal meaning), with a wig which kept slipping to expose the strips of Sellotape attempting to hold back his jowls, Miles was at his most quixotically impossible.

Noting the poor box-office advance prior to opening, Miles artfully drummed up acres of feverish press coverage by demanding that Desdemona appear nude in her death scene (insisting, on dubious textual "evidence", even when taxed with the fact that Shakespeare's heroines were first played by boys, that "the Bard" had intended this). Unfortunately, amidst the brouhaha, Purchase's body make-up – he must have been one of the last white actors to play the role in London – proved ineffective, staining not only the bed sheets but also Desdemona's naked body with large black smudges (subsequently the sheets were changed to black).

In his later years Purchase had a major stage success with John Wain's solo drama Johnson is Leaving (Stratford, 2003), based on Wain's biography of the Great Cham, and it met with similar success on various global tours.

Television work – I, Claudius, Rumpole of the Bailey and Doctor Who included – saw Purchase often cast in strong supporting roles .

He also proved a talented artist, enjoying several solo and mixed exhibitions; he also wrote a spirited account of his New Zealand upbringing and English theatrical life in his book Changing Skies (2007). He was married for 15 years to the fiction writer Elspeth Sandys; for the last five years his partner was Sara Hebblethwaite, an arts consultant.

The Last Confession (tour and Haymarket, 2007), the Vatican-set drama of papal intrigue, with David Suchet heading a markedly strong, mostly male cast, saw Purchase's final theatrical appearance.

Alan Strachan

Bruce Purchase, actor: born Thames, New Zealand 2 October 1938; married 1965 Elspeth Sandys (marriage dissolved); died London 5 June 2008.