The Year of Magical Wanking

Neil Watkins in 'The Year of Magical Wanking'. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Neil Watkins in 'The Year of Magical Wanking'. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Neil Watkins in 'The Year of Magical Wanking'. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Neil Watkins in 'The Year of Magical Wanking'. Photo: Fiona Morgan

“Don’t knock masturbation,” goes the old Woody Allen line. “It’s sex with someone I love.” That doesn’t seem to be Neil Watkins’ credo in The Year of Magical Wanking, or the version of Neil Watkins that he presents to us. A monologue of torment, shame, aggression and sexual isolation – self-abuse, in every sense – in outline, this one-man confessional performance could either be an exercise in onanistic self-regard or something that exposes its performer for a deeper purpose; something in which others can participate. There’s a fine line between art and therapy, Watkins understands, and on Ciarán O’Melia’s sparse set – a jagged rectangle marked in white tape, on which Watkins is often lit from below in distorting footlights – Watkins is literally made to walk it.

If the gloriously juvenile title jabs its finger into the raw nerve of Joan Didion’s memoir while subverting the elegance of Vanessa Redgrave’s one-woman performance in David Hare’s stage adaptation, Watkins pursues it with an uncommonly sensitive form: verse performance. Take an early introductory quatrain:

I am Neil Martin Watkins and I am
A sex and love addicted innocent.
There’s patterns I’ve adopted that would taint the
Love of Saints. I wank, therefore I slam.

There are more obedient examples of the rhyming scheme, but those internal chimes and enfolding rhymes are less a slam than a wrap; known sweetly as a “rime embrassée”. Add the sourness of Watkins' bitterness towards the teachings of Catholicism (its censures more than its spiritual beliefs) and you have something both caustic and considered, a seething personal autobiography which, under Phillip McMahon’s bracingly unsentimental direction, is transformed into a more capacious metaphor for disaffection and regeneration, well poised in its aesthetics and politics within THISISPOPBABY’s Queer Notions festival.

Roving from city to city over the course of a year, Watkins' monologue spills details of septic sexual fantasies, a submerged history of abuse, the intolerance of his parents, living with HIV and a string of abrasive sexual encounters and sporadic efforts to heal. As a plot, it has the rough unstructured trail of real life: he falls into the same self-destructive patterns between efforts to overcome them, and sharp excerpts of Oberman Knocks’ electronic soundscapes serve both as scene dividers and a complement to the show’s fractured progression.
Despite the specificities of his story, Watkins widens his narrative to involve a broader Irish experience: mocking reference to Mary Harney, mainly, and the historical stranglehold of the Catholic Church on national psychology, something Watkins finds easy to repudiate and immensely difficult to shake off. It’s not quite the story of a nation, but in his efforts to transform reality and history into something meaningful, it’s easy to relate to the expanse of his honesty.

Neil Watkins. Photo: Fiona MorganFor a start, even with the mediation of rhyme, this is Watkins without a shield. Instead of an actor with a character, a cabaret emcee with an airtight alter ego, or a drag performer with layers of make-up and acid wit, here he has just two warrior streaks of make-up beneath his eyes. Otherwise he’s clean-shaven and barefoot in a smart grey suit. There is nothing and nowhere to hide. Such lack of adornment may make things difficult for the uninitiated, of whom Watkins and McMahon assume there to be very few. When Watkins has a pivotal encounter with Heidi Konnt (he’s wisely constructed the play as a series of implied or enacted dialogues), those familiar with his Alternative Miss Ireland construction, a corrosive Teutonic parody who is part Swiss Miss, part Nazi Stormtrooper, will know just what a force we’re dealing with. Others may not follow the significance of this remarkable divided self: “You’re my addiction,” he tells her. “I make more cash than all your faggy acting gigs,” she replies. Talk about dependency...

There’s something harrowing in a man tormented by his own creations, but more so in the rejection of his mother. “She didn’t say, I love you more than God,” he says, echoing the heart-breaking refrain of acceptance from Brokentalkers’ Silver Stars (the show that brought Watkins around the world again; again, not everyone will follow). “Her word was ‘Fuck’.” Emotionally, it feels like a kick in the gut, yet even this comes through an artistic prism.

All of life is to some extent a performance, and it’s this developing understanding, even more than the deliverance Watkins finds in his awed recollection of an encounter with Amma, “The Hugging Saint”, that proves the most liberating realisation. Returning to artifice, he ends by delivering a monologue first heard in THISISPOPBABY’s alternative cabaret, Werk, one that exhibits the dexterity of his nimble mind, his cynical but somehow refreshing optic on the country, and, above all, his drive to create and relate. Though he is back behind a character – Fachtna McGinty this time – he is drawing from within to look beyond himself. The rhythms of this verse, different to all that precedes it, are designed to accompany the musical theme to Riverdance, but McMahon leaves it startlingly unsupported. It’s a brave and piercing display, stripping away its affect for a more moving truth; a direct connection with an audience as a culmination for a show about emotional introversion. The annus horribilis has ended. Watkins dares to look out again.

Peter Crawley 

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Year of Magical Wanking by Neil Watkins

10/11 December, 2010

In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Phillip McMahon

Designed by Ciarán O’Melia

Selected sounds by Oberman Knocks

With: Neil Watkins