'You can't afford to let the energy lapse at all'
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.
The theatre didn’t pay as well as TV, but Keogh, now newly married, didn’t mind. “For some reason it never bothered me, maybe because I was fortunate enough to always have something on the go, or to be able to make something happen if I didn’t.”
His theatrical partnership with the Linehans was one such venture, and their topical revues saw them touring the country to packed houses for two decades. Keogh never looked back, except perhaps with the regret that he “never seemed to be accepted as a serious actor after that. But revue is actually extremely challenging for an actor. It’s like instant acting, improvisation almost, and you are creating so many different characters in such a short span of time and we had to work really hard to be convincing.
“It got to the stage where I was very dissatisfied with [the limits of the parts he was playing],” he admits. “There seemed to be an establishment, and I never seemed to be part of it – maybe because of the comedy thing or maybe because I was always doing different things. [Keogh also presented a music programme on RTÉ Radio 1 for 30 years.] So I thought I’d go to America. I got myself a green card and became a member of American Equity, and although I never got to the point where I actually lived there, life changed quite a lot for me, and I finally got to play parts that I would never be seen for here.”
Over the years, he secured many of the great Irish parts for senior actors, such as the title character in Hugh Leonard’s Da and Fr Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa.
Indeed, it was in New York’s Irish Arts Centre that Keogh’s John B Keane adaptations first premiered. “The people behind those cultural institutions have done an enormous amount for Ireland,” he says, “they were really flying the flag for Irish culture long before any of the big names like Druid became known in America. There would have been a particular expectation [of what an Irish play was], and in some ways we fulfilled that. But they had never really heard of Keane, and it gave me some pleasure when I started doing the shows to be able to introduce them to such a great writer.”
Keogh first performed The Love-Hungry Farmer, “10 years ago almost to the day” that it opens at the Gaiety Theatre. “I love doing it,” he says. “As an actor, your greatest fear is always that you’ll be playing to empty houses”, but once he steps on to the stage, such worries dissipate.
“It was difficult to put together,” he admits, “trying to find a way to hold the audience for two hours straight; because when you are on stage alone, you can’t afford to let the energy lapse at all, and the first time I performed it, I was in absolute terror. But at this stage I don’t find it particularly difficult any more, it’s just a question of having the energy to get out and do it, and happily” – 50 years after his first professional role – “I still do.”
* The Love-Hungry Farmer is at The Gaiety Theatre until February 9th