Project Arts Centre, ABSOLUT Fringe 2011
I hope you took my advice to go see Neil Watkins’ The Year of Magical Wanking. My review coming up just as soon as my bear falls unconscious on the couch ...
“Neil was a good wanker
Blonde and kind”
“Virginia Woolf knows pain like mine
With voices ‘tween her ears”
One of the most moving and mesmerising theatre experiences of my life was watching a scene in Brokentalkers’ Silver Stars – a powerful song cycle which shared the stories of gay Irishmen – when Neil Watkins dons a pair of glasses with printed eyes in the lens and lip-synchs to an audio recording of John J. McNeill, a gay Irish-American Jesuit priest and former prisoner of war. McNeill’s story marches bravely with the beat of a drum, supported by wounded cellos and a male choir singing: “This ignorance of what I am forced my heart further joy”. Such are the words on Watkins’ lips but never actually speaks:
“The church so misunderstands us. It can’t see the goodness and the beauty of our love, but see it as evil. That freed us and because the church failed – we could always look to the church for spirituality and leadership – we had to go within and find the spirituality within us. So we had to develop a new spirituality where we discern in our very experiences what God is saying to us. And I think this spirituality which is coming from the gay community is the spirituality of the future. Our happiness is important to bring a message of liberation to the whole world. And there’s no greater joy than that, that knowing that you are helping to liberate other human beings to liberate others. For the love of life. The joy of life”.
In the constellations of Silver Stars it seems Watkins realised that he needed to tell his own story and reclaim the spirituality that he felt denied to him, to such a degree that in The Year of Magical Wanking the poet crucifies himself (aged 33, the same as Jesus) and rises again.
After sharing the details of his masturbatory ritual (with an opening for the audience to cheer their own penchant for the action) Watkins, or indeed the ‘Neil Watkins’ he presents to us, brings us through a marijuana haze of pent-house parties, meeting men in foreign cities (on tour with Silver Stars presumably), and inner battles, all delivered in hypnotic verse. An incident of child abuse drops without a tear onto the dark canvass, a violation an alternative saint suggests that he explore. The sexual behaviour that follows is juvenilely funny but frightening. Watkins becomes convinced that his being abused is not the sin but the fact that he insists on recreating it, filling him with more shame than he can stand. The Year of Magical Wanking becomes a heartbreaking prayer for mental health and love.
Brave and eloquent, hilarious and furious, Watkins is a weapon. He commands Philip McMahon’s bruising production with little other than streaks of warrior paint under his eyes and a rhyming verse protecting him by structuring his story as a heightened reality, giving him safe distance from his wounds. Drawing on his own performance history, Heidi Koont – Watkins’ Miss Alternative Ireland persona – is revived as a witching rival to his mental stability, forcing him to tell a humiliating story involving a Garda in Cork. His confrontation with Koont suggests not only his reason to create that persona (“So I could be someone on the scene”) but also his epitomising of her as everything feminine and wrong about him.
By the end of the show the armour of the rhymed verse has worn thin and Watkins is left exposed to our sheer judgement, not of only his performance as an actor but as a man. Some could find The Year of Magical Wanking the highest feat of self-indulgence. But while obscene and selfish in the events of his story, he also shows regard. When he asks a group of teenagers outside his room in Finland for a spliff, he recognises that one of them has a drug problem and does his best to wade him off that path (*).
(*) Sitting in the front row, and possibly because of my age, Watkins directed this speech directly at me. For the record: I don’t have a drug problem but I’ll always cherish the concern.
The sacrifice of Watkins’ honesty shows that shame lacerates homosexuals in predominantly Catholic communities, and if we are to have an internalised homophobia within ourselves it can very well destroy us. If the church has indeed failed in this respect, then search for spirituality within.
As for Watkins, we’ll always remember his grin punctuating the darkness “For the love of life. The joy of life”. I’m so glad this show exists.
What did everybody else think?