The Year Of Magical Wanking. Could there be a more romantic Valentine’s Day date? In honour of Mardi Gras, thisispopbaby presents Neil Watkins’ extraordinary one-man show, directed by Phillip McMahon, a deeply personal epistle of a drug-fuelled, sex-crazed life with HIV.
Molested as an eight-year-old child, Watkins, even in conceding the inappropriateness, confesses he enjoyed being touched. And wanted more. He explicitly extolls his rape fantasies. Details his addictive (ab)use of marijuana, cocaine, poppers and other substances. And tries to reconcile all of it — the guilt, shame, pride, lust, pain and more — with a root Catholicism. He even postulates himself as some kind of Christ-like, martyred figure. After all, he’s the self-same age as JC just before his crucifixion.
It’s a tale of torture and redemption. Depravity and dignity. With none of these things mutually exclusive, since they fall within the spectrum of human frailty and quest for meaning. Introduced and punctuated with a dramatic, disturbing, punch-drunk soundscape by Oberman Knocks, Watkins’ words pound just as powerfully; poetic and percussive. The effect is exhilarating, inspiring and uplifting; all the moreso because we learn this 60-minute stream-of-consciousness and conscience was the therapy that brought this, one of Ireland’s leading writers and performance artists, back from the brink of suicide: tragedy averted in the telling.
For this and other reasons, it’s a story that had to be told and one that will doubtless find convergence with many who’ve yet to see it, just as it very likely has with countless who already have witnessed it. In a wholly compelling hour of flawless verbal clarity and precision performance, Watkins lures us into his world of poverty and porn. It’s a bumpy ride down a rocky road to some semblance of happiness, peace and self-acceptance. Ciaran O’Melia’s design is little, if any more, than black box: judicious, as Watkins is and should remain the centrepiece.
One of the most amusing and yet poignant sidelights is the revelation of drag alter-ego, Heidi Konnt, who won the title of Alternative Miss Ireland 2005. Konnt taunts, baits and challenges Watkins and clearly serves a more fundamental purpose than a mere literary or theatrical conceit. As, I’d argue, in all great theatre, through the prism of the profoundly personal, Watkins seeks and finds something of the universal. It transcends censorship and notions of obscenity, to reveal an open, honest, ferociously auto-interrogative, sincere and authentic account of his and, at some point or other, all our lives, in tragic and heroic aspects. It’s about the constant battle to survive and surmount: the afflictions may be specific, but the physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual dimensions of the experiences described have broader touchpoints. You don’t have to be gay to hit paydirt here. X-rated Googling, masochistic sexual indulgence and isolation are hardly the sole preserve of homosexuality, the Irish, or HIV-infected.
We are taken on a journey from Dublin to New York to Helsinki, hanging out in dark places with bears and youths, Native American shamanic healers and famous writer-directors. It’s impossible to know precisely how much is strictly autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter: it has the pure, resonant ring of truth and confidence. It even has a homegrown association, insofar as Watkins obsession with The Hours, Nicole and Virginia Woolf. From the most humble environs of his grandpa’s council flat, Watkins emerges to inhabit a stately theatrical mansion, with many mysterious rooms.
Producers Jennifer Jennings and Colm O’Callaghan deserve to be lauded, too, for bringing the pointy, tough-minded end of Irish theatre to our attention. Bold, brave, unafraid, uncompromising; The Year Of Magical Wanking and its creator Neil Watkins are nothing short of electric and electrifying.
The details: The Year Of Magical Wanking plays the Richard Wherrett Studio at Sydney Theatre until February 18. Tickets on the venue website.