If you see one play about sex addiction this year. . .
‘The Year of Magical Wanking’ seems a rather frivolous title for a play, but it belies a profundity that leaps out at every opportunity, writes UNA MULLALLY
LIKE ALL good actors, every time you see Neil Watkins he looks different. Passing him in the street a month or so ago, he was almost unrecognis- able. “I’m living a monastic lifestyle,” he said, before getting on a bus.
Last December, on the stage of the Project Arts Centre performing The Year of Magical Wanking, his heavy brown beard, bare feet, bulging eyes and the sharp lighting made him appear almost purgatorial. The previous summer, as host and MC at its inaguration at Werk – the thisispopbaby-produced perform- ance art nightclub in the basement of the Abbey Theatre – he appeared as the ravaged and fervent Fachtna McGinty, as well as a leather-jock-strapped Jesus, and Heidi Konnt, the demonic alter ego who was victorious in the 2005 Alternative Miss Ireland contest. And now here he sits on a Saturday morning looking insultingly healthy (Bikram yoga) with blonde hair fluttering in the breeze outside the Cake Café in Dublin.
“People say that about me,” he says casually. He explains why in a round about way that involves a detailed description of cranio- sacral therapy (he’s tried “every scan, every f***ing X-ray going, every doctor” thanks to migraines caused by a trapped nerve that made him “go mad”) and comes to the conclusion that his responsiveness to treatment and therapy and his sensitivity to his environment means he changes constantly.
“If you said, ‘Neil, stick your finger in the fire’, I would, because I’d want to impress you, because I’d want you to like me. And that’s what I’ve had to address.”
It’s not the only thing he has had to address. The show is about to have its third run, following the thisispopbaby festival Queer Notionslast December, and for a second time this June at Cork’s Midsummer Festival. From September 9th to September 17th, Watkins will again take to the stage of the Project Arts Centre for the Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival to talk about what else he has addressed. It is a play about how Watkins tried to overcome his compulsive masturbation and sexual addiction. Riveting monologues speak about Ireland, and everyone, as much as they do about his own experience. The play is exhilarating. His performance is incendiary. The truths that tumble relentlessly throughout are brutal in their honesty, darkness, humour, grief, desperation and self-awareness.
The rather frivolous title belies the profundity that leaps from the darkness at every opportunity. And there is a lot of darkness in Watkins’s writing; a tumble dryer into which abuse, addiction, illness and frantic self-examination are chucked, to reveal what are shocking, yet remarkably identifiable truths.
“The thing is, performing it in Queer Notionsand performing it in Cork, I was probably still in that frame of mind. Now I’m not. Now it’s behaviour that’s in the past. I’m looking at it from a healthier perspective. To do that in a more stable frame of mind is probably more upsetting objectively, because when you’re in it you don’t see how destructive you’re being.”
Now, Watkins is looking forward to performing it with a vitality that was previously missing. “I always saw the play as cathartic. The further you go into therapy or healing yourself in any way, the more layers are being peeled back. I’m at a layer now where the hard facade of addictive behaviour has been taken off. It’s more vulnerable.”
He equates writing the play with the scene in Harry Potterwhere the schoolboy, forced to write out lines, finds what he’s writing being cut into his skin thanks to a nasty spell. In the initial rehearsals, he found himself weak, occasionally close to shaking or crying, with the director and one half of thisispopbaby, Phillip McMahon, guiding him through. “We were trying to guide him into a space where he was free to make any kind of work he wanted to make,” McMahon says. “There was no pressure, but once it was preformed it was obvious the work was very strong.”
The form the play takes – essentially poetry – was felt necessary to give “a mask to the ugliness” and also, to be indulgent, “you know that stigma around poetry when you’re growing up. If you said ‘I’m a poet’, you’re a f***ing wanker.” Watkins drew on his training at Drama Centre London to work through the play’s monologues.
The first time the play was performed, the power went in Temple Bar. Watkins finished it outside on a snow-covered street, with the evacuated crowd lighting him with their phones. When people see the play, some choose to open up to him, e-mail him.
“Confessions is a heavy word, but people would let go of their own stories of why they feel messed up in their heads.” It’s something that makes him feel “less alone”.
The essence of what he and thisispopbaby are doing with this play seems obvious to him. “It’s just basic truth.” But if it’s so obvious, then how come people don’t share that all the time?
“Because we’ve all been conditioned for years and years to be ashamed of certain aspects, ashamed of emotion, ashamed of feeling, an inability to sit with feelings. And I think that’s what leads people to seek a distraction, whether that’s alcoholism, workaholism, food disorders, gambling, whatever. All of those things – looking for a high, looking for a hit – it all has to do with an inability to sit with feelings. We do all know it. Rationally, we all know it. But emotionally is another thing. There’s a real difficulty people have in sitting with their feelings. That’s what I’ve learned about myself.” And once again, it’s time for audiences to learn that along with him.