'You can't afford to let the energy lapse at all'
In John B Keane's The Love-Hungry Farmer
Actor Des Keogh
Des Keogh is a practical kind of showman. He has been involved in theatre for half a century, but there is nothing flamboyant about him when we meet on a sodden Sunday in his quiet suburban home. He is modest, reserved, and thoroughly unaffected, a far cry from the raucous persona of his revue days, when he toured the country with his long-term theatrical partner Rosaleen Linehan, poking fun and pointing fingers at the hubris of Ireland’s politicians.
“Dessie and Rosie”, the irascible pair, have been recently retired after more than 20 years of acclaim, but Keogh continues to perform with irrepressible passion. He spent the summer working at the Gate Theatre in A Woman of No Importance, and this week he revives his popular adaptation of The Love-Hungry Farmer. It is a one-man show based on John B Keane’s celebrated book, and the second version of Keane’s prose that Keogh has turned into theatre.
“He is someone who I always felt was overlooked,” Keogh says of Keane, and it is obvious he identifies with the writer, who was snubbed by the professional theatre in his lifetime. “People are not inclined to take you seriously when you are involved in comedy or revue,” he admits, with resignation rather than bitterness. “Because I was associated with lighter things, I suppose people were slow to accept that I might have been good for the straight parts, too.”
Keogh first developed his love of the theatre as a secondary school student at Glenstal Abbey, returning home at weekends and holidays with “party pieces” to perform for his family. His talent was nurtured at UCD’s Dramsoc, where he first met Rosaleen and her future husband Fergus Linehan, who would become best friends and favourite collaborators. He studied French and German, and afterwards “went for law”. Already he wanted to be an actor – he had a professional engagement at The Gate during his college years, carrying a spear in Twelfth Night – but “there was always the question of what you were going to do for money, so I took law, though it was probably the drama of it that attracted me. I was good at debating and thought I’d enjoy all the speeches, but I hated it, there was so much awful stuff, so much learning.”
He finished his exams anyway, and eventually was called to the bar, “so that I’d be qualified if I needed to use it, but thankfully I never did”. After graduation, Keogh flirted briefly with a “good, steady job at Guinness Brewery”, but clerkdom didn’t suit him, and after a year in Belfast, where he spent every spare minute in the back garden of Mary O’Malley’s house, the first home of the Lyric Theatre, he decided to quit to pursue his ambitions in “this bohemian business.”
Back in Dublin, RTÉ had just been launched and Keogh found himself recruited to work in continuity at the new television station, “introducing the programmes and interviewing people. It was a really exciting time,” he remembers, “and very glamorous. I was this carefree bachelor with a flashy car and loads of invitations. Everyone who was watching TV sort of got to know you as a personality. But my aspiration was to act, not to be known for asking someone else questions.”
He left this, too, and dedicated himself, finally, to a life on the stage. He started his own theatre company and, capitalising on his connections, recruited some well-known faces from The Riordans and Tolka Row and took off around the country with a production of a popular farce, Charlie’s Aunt, in which he staked out his territory as a comedic actor.