The Midsumma Festival occurs at an awkward time of year for Ms TN. Through January, I am usually cowering in a bunker, resolutely ignoring the explosions as the year's first press releases burst overhead in showers of light and noise. This year was the same, only more so. But a letter trickled through my defences, despite everything I could do; and so last Sunday I found myself at Theatreworks, to see the final Melbourne show of Neil Watkins's The Year of Magical Wanking. This is a one-man monologue from Ireland's queer theatre company THISISPOPBABY which is presently touring Australia, and you can catch it in Sydney and Adelaide over the coming weeks.
|Neil Watkins. Picture: Peter Fingleton|
It's a confessional monologue about gay shame written in rhyming verse, promoted as a journey towards healing. All these things are red lights, as far as I'm concerned; Bully, a show with almost exactly the same job description, caused me much anguish during the Adelaide Fringe a couple of years ago. But The Year of Magical Wanking is a different fish altogether: it's a stylish, searingly courageous work of theatre.
As its nod to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking suggests, this is a journey of introspection. Watkins explores his resistance to love and intimacy, the result of his self-loathing as an HIV-positive gay man. He describes his fascination with violent porn, his humiliating masochistic encounters with predatory men, and most of all his addictions to masturbation and drugs. There is no self-pity in his account, and a deal of wicked humour threaded through its sometimes brutal frankness.
Watkins walks on a stage marked out by tape and lengths of fluorescent floor lights. He is dressed in a neutral dark suit, with his face marked with war-paint - woad, perhaps? - signalling his state of conflict. As with the text, his mask is minimal, but present: there is the smallest distinction between the performer and his performance, but it is a necessary one.
Rhyming verse can be a kind of kitsch: a constant reminder of its own artifice, in less than deft hands it can turn into a sledgehammer. Here, handled with wit and suppleness, the verse functions much as kitsch and melodrama function in the films of Pedro Almodóvar: as a means of entering extreme states of abjection or ecstasy. The performance shifts between religious and sexual excess, to comedy, to pitiless self-insight, sometimes in the space of a minute, and becomes more gripping and emotionally powerful as it continues.
Phillip McMahon directs with a stern minimalism: the hour-long show is punctuated by intervals of darkness, marking beats, with the entire focus on the performance. Within this stark frame, Watkins evokes a surprising richness; his is the personal story of a gay man, but resonates beyond it to an unsentimentalised portrayal of Ireland itself: the injuries of its bleak Catholicism, the continuing scandals of sexual abuse (which reach far beyond the church), its grim and bitter history.
From the beginning Watkins signals his desire for transcendence, and the text is threaded with spiritual torment as much as it is with sexual injury. It's there in his very Catholic shame and the unresolved bitterness, even the misogyny, of his relationship with his mother, but also in his intermittent search for healing through Native American spirituality. Watkins's encounters with New Age spiritual leaders could in fact be the most confronting parts of the show, risking more perhaps than his sexual confessions: but his visions of Christ, his radiant moments of ecstatic revelation, are the other side of his desire for self-erasure, and compelling in their raw expression of need.
The performance is at once an enactment of the process of insight, and the means by which the performer discovers it, and so it becomes an act charged with meaning. Work of this kind is fraught with peril: it can all too easily fall into self-deceiving sentimentality, or plump for an easy love-conquers-all narrative of redemption. Watkins is too honest to permit this; he steps the narrow line with intelligence and skill. It's a beautifully judged and powerful work.
The Year of Magical Wanking, written and performed by Neil Watkins, directed by Phillip McMahon, designed by Ciarán O'Melia. THISISPOPBABY and Theatreworks (closed). Richard Wherrett Studio, Sydney Theatre, Sydney Mardi Gras Feb 14-18; Adelaide College of the Arts Xspace Feb 22-March 18.