‘For me to come, I’m either stoned or pissed,’ the earnest figure on stage confides to the audience. Something tells you you’re not in theatrical Kansas any more with Neil Watkins' achingly intimate one-man performance, The Year of Magical Wanking. Mind you, the title should give some small clue as to the unvarnished rub of the show.
Delivered entirely in verse of the delicious doggerel variety, The Year of Wanking takes us into the heart of darkness that is Neil Watkins’s so-called life.
Watkins is a 33-year-old with an age-appropriate messiah complex. He’s also Irish, gay and masturbates more than is good for him. But as any Irish male who’s survived a Catholic upbringing will testify, once is too much, but a thousand times is never enough.
Proscribed by family, society and most particularly himself, this show is performer Watkins dissertation on who, where and what he is at the age that Jesus was crucified. 'If she can resurrect, I can as well' he jokes brazenly, before taking the audience on a guided tour through his very own stations of the (occasionally) cross.
It’s not so much a monologue as a discourse involving many voices, including different aspects of Watkins himself. It is an incantation as much as a rumination. A spell of stage-bound ritual in which he publicly flays himself evening after evening. A Year of... takes us from the States to Berlin to his grandfather’s abandoned Dublin flat, but the travelogue is as emotional as it is geographical.
Heavy streaks of makeup slash Watkins's face he stalks the stage, his rhyming riffs spilling forth. Besuited and bare of foot, he’s a queer sort of self-abusing animal on display for our slightly cringing edification.
'Weed, poppers, I go to war' he declares, priming himself for another turn on the laptop. His right hand is his favoured trigger to 'drain Santa’s sack in Satan’s gaze'. It is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Self-abuse seems to be the only safe space in the complex self-loathing / loving cipher that defines the Irish gay performer’s frequently troubled and tawdry life.
He reflects on the family, friends and freaks that make up his society and his place within. At the same time he is trying to reconcile and rectify urges that draw him self-destructively to the dark side of sex and to 'thugs, daddy types or half-retarded mugs'.
He wonders whether it’s because he was sexually abused as a child. In itself this becomes an unlikely and hugely uncomfortable cause for mirth when he argues with his therapist about whether he was actually raped or not. It works because it is comedy triumphantly cajoled and teased from between the jaws of a terrible truth.
There are many such disconcertingly funny moments, offering a welcome respite from a central narrative so sad and a character so lost at times. It’s telling that there is much laughter here tonight – and it makes this decidedly non-catholic confessional all the more poignant.
His search for spiritual meaning takes in a white witch doctor in Wicklow named 'Sweet Medicine Horse Nation' (of course), long, stoned conversations with his therapist and an Indian ‘hugging saint’. The verse style of delivery at once enhances the ‘performance’ of this most personal of public disclosures, and also cushions the darker edges of his tale in poetic rhyming couplet – words like 'fisting' are partly disarmed as they float in a queasy half-life here between metaphor and literal meaning.
We discover early on that he’s HIV positive, but that he lives near a HIV centre that provides free meals: 'You could say I’m lucky! God Provides.' There are many such turns of phrase that offer comedic balm to the horrific, the horrible and the heartbreaking.
By the end, it’s a blessed relief that Neil is alive to tell this twisting tale of fear and loathing and lust’s vagaries. The uncompromising material is also made more palatable by dint of the fact that Watkins is a hugely assured and engaging performer, playfully bombastic and endearingly self-deprecating all in the space of a couple of couplets.
He deftly picks out the stepping stones between out and out biography and performance, creating enough comforting blur between the factual and the fantastical to create something that’s more impressive and profound than either.
The conclusion of the show manages to be both poignant and hopeful, yet it’s without any conventional denouement – such is life, ever rolling on. A Year of... is everything such a very public display of disaffection should be – funny, moving, challenging, entertaining. Accordingly, it’s a hugely fitting end to this year’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival.