A few years ago I was privileged to see a performance of John B Keane’s The Love Hungry Farmer in the Wexford Arts Centre and it was a wonderful theatre experience. The lead was a man who is no stranger to John B Keane and is now playing the lead (and every other role) in Confessions of an Irish Publican, a play which must surely be something akin to Keane’s memoirs as he ran his own pub down in Kerry, no doubt a stronghold for the great character we see in his theatre work.
I had the chance to speak to Des Keogh about upcoming play Confessions and just what it was that makes Keane so popular with Irish audiences.
First things first, can you tell us a bit about the play and the characters you play?
Well, after I finished doing The Love Hungry Farmer, I was looking for another play along the same lines as it and I found this one, which was called Letters of an Irish Publican. So I did the adaptation of that and I thought first it would have to be a two person show because there were some female characters in it. But then I was doing the a production in New York, directed by the artistic director of Irish Repertory Theatre there and she said, ‘why not play the female characters yourself?’ So I said ‘well, maybe so. I’ve done it before.’ So that’s what I’m doing, I’m playing all the characters.
The main character is the publican telling the story. He’s looking back on his life, particularly to when he was in his early 40s when he has a couple of episodes with various different women. The mother superior is one character. The local parish priest is another and delivers a number of very telling sermons. And there’s a kind of high class solicitor from Dublin 4 as well. So that’s just a few of the characters.
A lot of Keane’s work is rural based, and in fact, a lot of Irish drama in general is rural based. It seems to be very much an Irish theatre thing. What would be your thoughts on that having done a lot of rural based plays?
A lot of Irish writing is rural that’s very true. And in fact the play I’m doing here in Galway at the moment which is a new play is by a writer from Co Cavan. The character I’m playing in that is a ‘mountain-y farmer’ up in the hills of Co. Cavan. I don’t know exactly why playwrights choose rural setting. Of course there are others who base theirs in Dublin, the one that comes immediately to mind is Bernard Farrell, who was about the only one I think, writing about the suburban public. But yeah, the majority of Irish plays, I agree with you, have a rural setting. I think it might be to do with the language and the richness of the language and the characters. I’m not saying there aren’t rich characters in Dublin because of course there are and O’Casey mined that particular place because he had wonderful characters in his work. But I think there’s a great deal going on in rural areas and that’s what people like.
Looking down through your own repertoire of work, you’ve had a lot of amazing roles. What are your favourites? Or what roles would you love to have played or still love to play?
There would be a few but I achieved a couple of them in recent years. Earlier this year I played the part of Da in Hugh Leonard’s play Da. The opportunity came because I was asked to play it in America. I’ve had the opportunity of playing parts in America that I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play here. Another favourite was Fr. Jack in Dancing At Lughnasa. I played that in America as well. And I also did Frank McGuinness’s play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. I’ve been a bit pigeon holed here in Ireland as, if you like, a comedy actor. But I really enjoyed doing Da in America. Another ambition of mine is going to be achieved this autumn because I’ve been asked to appear in a Beckett play End Game in the Gate. I’d always like to have done one of the tramps in Waiting For Godot but never had the opportunity. But now I’ve got this great opportunity. It’s a long time since I’ve played in The Gate so I’m very much looking forward to doing that. There’s a couple of other parts I’d love, I’d love to play Polonius in Hamlet. And I still could play that if someone asked me to, but there are other parts that have passed me by because of my antiquity!
Was theatre something you were always interested in or something that you got into later in life?
Yeah I’ve always been into theatre. I spent most of my school days in boarding school and I did theatre there. Then when I went to college I joined the Drama Soc and it was there that I met a lot of people who later went into the professional ranks as well. I did a lot of stuff in college. But I had always tried to avoid doing it on a full time basis because my father, who was a bank man and quite conservative, thought it was a very precarious occupation. So I got a job in Guinness for a couple of years before deciding it wasn’t for me. So I’ve been full time as a professional actor now since 1963 and I haven’t regretted it.
You’ve done a lot of John B. Keane’s work. The Field has been on the Leaving Cert course for years and his plays are almost part of say an Irish Theatre canon along with probably O’Casey and Friel. So what do you think it is about Keane that makes his work resonate so widely around Ireland?
I think people recognise the real characters. I think there’s a great truth in the plays and in the writing of John B Keane. He knows his characters so very well. He met all these people. I think that’s why his work resonates so well with Irish audiences because they can recognise local people in it. And even though, a lot of his plays are set in Kerry, they could be set anywhere in Ireland. And he calls a spade a spade. It’s straight forward down to earth writing and I think people enjoy that.
Confessions of an Irish Publican does two runs in Dublin: Mill Theatre, Dundrum 26th, 27th, 28th August; Helix 2nd, 3rd, 4th September
Words: Anna Hayes