When actor and writer Des Keogh penned a show about playwright, critic and philosopher George Bernard Shaw and the women in his life, there was ever only going to be one title.
Shaw’s best known work is Pygmalion, first staged in 1913, which subsequently became the film My Fair Lady.
As a result, Des decided that My Fair Ladies was perfect title for the show, which will come to the Town Hall Theatre next Friday and Saturday, June 5 and 6.
“A lot of the women in his life were involved in theatre,” says 80-year-old Des, one of Ireland’s best known stage and screen performers. “Shaw loved theatre. He was very involved in it and he fell for prominent actresses.”
These included Britain’s Queen of Stage at the time, Ellen Terry, as well as Mrs Patrick Campbell, who was the original Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion. The man whom Des describes as “a bit of a late starter” when it came to sex, had passionate relationships, largely via letters, with both of them.
Shaw was indeed a late starter, even by Victorian standards, having his first sexual encounter at the age of 29 with his mother’s friend Jenny Patterson, a “tempestuous widow”, who was 15 years his senior. Theirs was a fraught relationship and broke up over his pursuit of the actress Florence Farr, who also had a relationship with WB Yeats, says Des.
During his 30s, Shaw had relationships with various women, frequently via letter, until eventually at the age of 40 he met Irish heiress Charlotte Payne Townshend. They married when they were both 42 and while it seems their 45-year marriage was never consummated – by mutual consent – they were perfectly happy together.
Mrs Patrick Campbell was the big love of his life, says Des, although they never got to consummate their relationship either. There was one occasion when it looked as though they would but fate intervened and robbed them of the chance.
Some of Des’s material is drawn from the correspondence between Shaw and the various women. These letters show the softer side of a man who was known for his trenchant views on everything from women’s rights to vegetarianism.
“I refer to the letters and quote some of them,” says Des, who has appeared in just a few of Shaw’s plays during his long career. “My big idea was to come up with a show that audiences would find entertaining. Shaw was a very amusing man.”
In addition to reading Michael Holroyd’s exhaustive biography of Shaw, Des also drew on My Astonishing Self, a one-man show on the life of playwright George Bernard Shaw. This was first performed in the 1970s by Des’s late friend, the actor and writer Donal Donnelly,
“Some years ago I asked Donal If I could have a look at the script and he gave me carte blanche to use it. I’ve been inspired by it, but have taken a very different angle,” Des explains, adding that his approach is less academic.
Des has been living with the piece for some time, first while writing it and now as its performer, under the direction of Pat Talbot. It premiered in Clontarf’s Viking Theatre in April and it currently is on a countrywide tour.
“It doesn’t get easier as you get older,” says Des of learning lines, even ones he wrote himself. “But I’m still very fortunate in that I have a great capacity for learning and I still enjoy the process.”
■ My Fair Ladies will be at the Town Hall Theatre next Friday, June 5 and Saturday, June 6 at 8pm nightly. Tickets are €20/18 from tht.ie, 091-569777 or at the box office.
Marking Baboró’s birth as children’s festival turns 25
Baboró Children’s Arts Festival, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, changed the face of arts in Ireland by putting young people front and centre. “Until then, there wasn’t any theatre for children in Ireland, unless it was educational,” recalls Patricia Forde, a driving force in establishing Baboró.
“Theatre existed, but it wasn’t art. We brought in companies from Italy and Spain whose shows were just about art, not education. And they were beautiful.”
From the get-go, Patricia loved that companies created work specifically for certain age groups – toddlers for instance – that focused on their stage of development.
Baboró grew out of Galway Arts Festival and it reflected a changing audience dynamic.
In the early days of the Arts Festival, when Ollie Jennings programmed it, Patricia worked in the box office. The audience then was made up mostly of single people, many of them students and backpackers, she recalls. By the time she took over as Artistic Director in the early 1990s, that had changed.
“People were looking for more family shows.” She obliged, by setting up a family strand in the Festival, known as Baboró. Little John Nee, with his children’s shows, “was our anchor tenant”, she says of his annual appearances at the former Mercy Secondary School in Newtownsmyth. The first year when there wasn’t enough funding to dress the school yard in bunting, Patricia’s sister, Ailish, improvised by hanging colourful clothes on clotheslines across the yard. That year too, a fire engine was one of the main attractions and kids queued up to get their photos taken with it, she laughs.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of the story, see this week’s Galway City Tribune or Connacht Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.
Moving west to make her artistic mark
Bernie Dignam’s grandfather fought in World War I and was one of the unfortunate soldiers who saw action in Gallipoli, a horrific experience which damaged him for life. But he never forgot his fellow soldiers and for years afterwards, would mark Remembrance Sunday by wearing a poppy and marching in their memory.
In the 1920s, that didn’t win him many fans in the newly-independent Ireland, says his artist granddaughter Bernie who lives in Moyard, outside Clifden. Bernie never knew her granddad but admires him for staying true to himself, despite the consequences. It’s easy see why she would because she’s cut from the same cloth.
Her grandfather was from north inner-city Dublin and Bernie was reared in Finglas, the oldest of a family of eight children. Her journey to North Connemara brought her to Limerick and Monaghan before she finally arrived in the 1990s, to work in Letterfrack.
Moyard, between Clifden and Letterfrack, is where she built her home and it’s where she now runs her studio and art gallery, showcasing her work across a variety of genres – felting, weaving, batik and printmaking. It’s inspired by nature, mostly by the local landscape.
Bernie’s background is in design – after graduating from DIT, she did a research project in UL on the use of Irish softwood.
But there weren’t many jobs in design and product development when she left college and she didn’t have any connections in the industry. So she did a diploma that would allow her teach art and design, which is where she developed her passion for such processes as felting and batik.
She’d grown up around textiles, she explains, as her father, Christy, was an upholsterer. His day job was with CIÉ as a steady income was needed for his large family. But in his spare time, he upholstered furniture in a shed at the back of their house. She describes him as a master craftsman and an expert on fabrics. Her mother, Teresa, meanwhile, was “very practical. She fixed our bikes, made our clothes and knitted Aran jumpers for us”.
Read Judy Murphy’s in-depth interview with Bernie Dignam in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or you can download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
Bowing out after 31 years’ service
James C Harrold has played a key role in Galway’s artistic life for more than three decades. The retiring City Arts officer reflects on his years working in the county and city, and shares memories of artists, events and places, while also looking to the future.
Since 1990 I have been working with the artists, arts organisations, communities and neighbourhoods of Galway; for ten years as City and County Arts Officer, and subsequently specifically in the city. I had returned to Galway from Wexford Arts Centre where I had been Artistic Director, but before that I had spent a lot of time in the West. Every childhood summer was enjoyed in Barna, I went to college here, to UCG, and had worked with Galway Arts Festival, the Arts Centre and Macnas.
My romantic and adoring view of Galway originated in early-years visits to Kennys’ with my bibliophile father, or to Charles Lamb’s studio in Carraroe, or to my mother’s family in musical Belclare at the foot of Knockma.
‘Galway is a paradise,’ I stated firmly in a newspaper profile to mark my appointment.
I was one of the first of the new Local Authority Arts Officers, co-funded by the Arts Council with a brief to develop local arts.
Based in possibly Ireland’s oldest prefab at the back of the County Buildings in Prospect Hill, a handy base to explore from, create and curate projects, networks and funding opportunities, I was tasked to advise and assist the city and county in policy, programming and grant aid. My dear friend and college colleague Michael Diskin had returned to Galway on the same day, February 19th.
For the next 22 years, with Mike from 1994 ensconced in the Town Hall Theatre we met two or three times a week. Back in the ‘80s we had been inspired by Ollie Jennings and Páraic Breathnach, who had laid the foundations for so much of Galway’s creative reputation. We were following in their mighty footsteps and developing our own pathways too.
Early forays into the county involved bringing Little John Nee to the towns and villages every weekend that summer. His children’s shows, mainly open-air in the little market squares of east and north Galway opened conversations that are continuing still.
Read the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie