'It has an extraordinary sense of reality because of our actual age' – Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh reunite for Beckett's 'Endgame'

Rosaleen Linehan watches as Des Keogh climbs out from underneath the nuclear waste bin. We are in a rehearsal room for Pan Pan’s production of Beckett’s Endgame, where the two legendary actors, in a whispering sideshow, then sit doubled over laughing at something no one else can hear.

This Christmas, the strictly anti-festive play should get everyone into the mood of climate emergency, plastic pollution, extinction.

Endgame, first produced in 1957 in French as Fin de Partie, imagines four ageing and infirm souls existing – and dying – in a grim enclosure, playing out endless rituals and games.

Keogh and Linehan, as husband and wife Nagg and Nell, live in bins and have no legs. Beckett’s stage directions call for ashbins; these are solvent bins, I’m told. They are narrower than you’d like, if you were hunched in one, night after night, in your ninth decade. The bins look like a good place for a panic attack.

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Keogh (84) and Linehan (82) have collaborated on and off for much of their lives. They filled theatres with their satirical double act and each went on to have illustrious careers. Fifty-five years since they first met, they stay back during their lunch hour to talk to Review. We have 15 minutes.

“Our bins this time are very constricted,” says Linehan. “They really are quite scary. And getting into them is like, those awful things in the [hospital] – you haven’t been in them yet but no doubt you will be. Those, what are they called?”

“MRI scans,” they say in unison.

“Horrible feeling of claustrophobia. But I get out soon,” says Linehan. “Des is in longer, considerably longer. I can go have a gin and tonic.”

Is that what she’ll do?

“No. I’ll probably stay backstage. I don’t think it would be correct. I don’t know, maybe.”

Keogh is tall with broad shoulders. He keeps a handkerchief in the pocket of his long, cream mackintosh. Linehan wears a black dress and her silver hair is clipped back.

A lifetime of cheering people up has not tampered with the flow of her charm. They are both engaging, but Keogh answers fewer questions, sitting back to listen and nod while she holds court.

“The last one,” says Linehan, meaning the last bin [they played the same roles in Endgame in 2010 in the Gate’s production, directed by Alan Stanford, which toured to America], “I had a duvet around me and it was bigger, and I had a little shelf and a miner’s lamp, and I had books and crosswords, and I had a little bottle of wine for when the scene was over. I had a whole little existence – I could nearly have asked people in for a drink, in my dustbin.”

What difference does a decade make to a play which forces an awareness of the end?

Keogh: “It has an extraordinary sense of reality at this stage because of our actual age. It’s a bit frightening, really, to be doing it. It reminds me quite a bit in some ways of domestic circumstances, and my wife, Geraldine [O’Grady], and I sort of chatting at home. I feel sometimes it is a little bit frightening.”

“And I’ve lost my Nagg since the last time,” says Linehan, referring to her late husband, Fergus Linehan.

Keogh: “We are a couple who have been together for umpteen years and we know each other very well. And there is this rapport, and sympathy, and love between the two of us, I think.”

Their friendship as performers – as well as Nagg and Nell’s touching marital bond – must help them through the frightening moments?

“Ah yes, of course,” says Rosaleen. “And then I die.”

“To my great distress,” says Des.

Linehan, as Nell, does die suddenly in her bin (hence the early stage exit and the gin and tonic). The actor leans into the table and dispenses a key quote from Endgame: “Nothing funnier than unhappiness.”

First role at 17

“I was thinking this morning, actually, something awful happens, there’s two roads that lead to the swamp. One is self-pity. And the other is to laugh. There’s probably something in between, but it’s one or the other, isn’t it, really?”

Laughter has bound the two actors since they first met, when Keogh gave Linehan her first role in a UCD Dramsoc ‘potboiler’. She was 17. Fergus Linehan was already Keogh’s great friend. “We used to go to rugby matches together”, says Keogh. “And we all went to each other’s weddings.” Fergus wrote the revues they performed to packed houses during the 1970s and 80s.

Linehan: “It is probably the most wonderful moment in anybody’s life to be there with an audience falling around the place, nearly 1,500 people in the Gaiety. It’s just glorious, isn’t it?”

Keogh: “Ah, it’s lovely.”

Linehan: “It’s sort of like champagne and gorgeous meals all wrapped up together.”

Keogh: “The first great feeling of the evening is to realise: another full house.”

Linehan: “I’d walk out and I had this way of smiling around and seeing if there was one free seat up in the dress circle.”

Keogh: “It would really upset her, if she saw an empty seat in the theatre.”

The shows were popular, even among the political circles who were being ridiculed. There were also walk-outs and incensed individuals. Linehan – who has four children, and now twice as many grandchildren, while Keogh has a daughter and two grandchildren – remembers a woman phoning her and shouting down the phone: “You don’t deserve to be a mother!”

“People were saying about Gay Byrne having courage. He would have got vicious hate mail,” she says.

The company rehearse a few scenes. “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” asks Andrew Bennett’s blind Hamm from behind dark sunglasses and a grey beard, sitting in a wheelchair while his servant, Anthony Morris’s Clov, unhappily waits on him.

The two older actors then sit on chairs to run through a scene, and reveal perfect command of the language, filling the spaces in Beckett’s laconic text with mischief, fear, shock. Expressions streak across each of their faces. She stops to chat, he maintains a furrowed look. “My performance was s***e,” she whispers to director Gavin Quinn afterwards.

Getting ready to leave, she asks for two things to take into her solvent bin during the show: a damp cloth for her face, and a notepad and pen, in case she needs to pass out a note. “In case I’m dying or something.”

‘A fierce lift’

Working in theatre in their 80s is something we barely discuss – seems like it’s hardly the point here. “Some actors find that the lines slip away,” says Linehan. “Des has always been superb on lines, terribly committed. He would have kept me in check.”

Keogh: “We’re very lucky to still have that facility. I always enjoyed learning lines, and still do. At school, I learnt off reams of poetry that I still remember.”

Linehan: “Being out is wonderful. As you get older, it’s lovely to be with young people. That gives you a fierce lift, doesn’t it?”

Keogh: “Ah yeah, absolutely. I like it very much because I have in recent times been doing a lot of solo shows, which gets a bit,” he adds a dash of irony, “lonely.”

Linehan: “And I mean, what would I be doing at home? Lying in bed, reading a book, the blanket on?”

Is there a script or a part either of them would love to get their hands on now?

Linehan opts not to give a straight answer: “I’m looking out for parts for my 90s actually at the moment. Just checking, you know.”

“I’d like to play – if any producer is listening,” says Keogh, “the Canon in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a lovely small part. Because then, like Rosaleen, I might have a chance of stealing the show.”

Aha, is that how it is?

Keogh: “Oh yes.” And being sidekick doesn’t bother him? “Oh no, I’m fine with that. Always have been.”

Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh star in Pan Pan’s production of ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett until December 7, Project Arts Centre, Space Upstairs, Dublin. panpantheatre.com

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