The Nico Project
Stoller Hall, Manchester International Fesitval ★★★★✩
WITH the house lights blaring, Maxine Peake shuffles nervously on stage and fiddles with an amp, addressing the audience directly and asking an errant cougher if they’re ok. It’s not entirely clear whether we’ve begun, whether Peake is playing Nico, the avant-garde femme fatale, or a version of herself. Or, perhaps, someone who has been inhabited by Nico’s ghost (at one point a chair falls spookily off stage). It’s that kind of night — a confrontational, confounding piece of performance art as much as theatre, shot through with moments of genuine brilliance.
This is absolutely not a biography of Nico’s iconic life as a singer in Velvet Underground, solo artist, actor, model and muse for Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Tonally, it’s more interested in exploring the nature of tortured genius, with a wide-eyed Peake repeating lines over and over again, grasping at some kind of meaning. Her cryptic performance is often reminiscent of Peake’s Hamlet in 2014, another collaboration with director Sarah Frankcom in Manchester.
The Nico Project also contains one of the finest depictions of the moment when art is created; Peake tries out the first few chords to Frozen Warnings, from her seminal 1968 record The Marble Index, before the striking young female orchestra — who also perform an acting role as nightmarish chorus — run with it. The music swells to a genuinely incredible crescendo, both aurally and visually, as Peake appears, messianic, on the balcony.
As a dazed audience leave the concert hall an hour later, someone in Nico’s orbit in her latter Manchester years whispers that Peake got her mannerisms spookily right. It’s the kind of piece that needs this prior knowledge, perhaps, but The Nico Project is as enigmatic a show as Nico herself.