By David Keyworth
Maxine Peake enters Stoller Hall through one of the oak-panelled doors, to the side of the audience. She is wearing a long black coat. When she walks on stage she seems to have forgotten her lines and she speaks in her natural Lancashire accent. The stage is full of wind and string instruments – as if a rehearsal has been abandoned.
Maxine/Nico speaks in a disconnected poetic rambling monologue about being alone at a train station. She starts to take on Nico’s rich Germanic tones. An orchestra of eerily innocent schoolgirls enter the stage and pick up the instruments to provide a suitably discordant and haunting soundtrack.
Before I saw this show – part of Manchester International Festival (MIF) – my knowledge of Nico (1938 – 1988) was patchy. I knew that she was a once-seen-never-forgotten 60’s icon who sang with the Velvet Underground, shared a flat with punk poet John Cooper Clarke and ended up living in Manchester. I also associated her with drug addiction and the self-destruction of heroin chic.
At the end of around sixty minutes, I didn’t feel like I knew any more details of her life.
This is not a criticism of Maxine Peake or director Sarah Frankcom (who is moving on from being Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre to be succeeded by Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan). It soon becomes clear that the aim of The Nico Project is to capture not the facts, but the essence of the musician, model and actress and the cocktail of creativity and instability which characterised her life.
At the Royal Exchange, Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake have developed a dynamic theatrical relationship. Last year they worked together on Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. I couldn’t help thinking that Beckett must have been a substantial inspiration for The Nico Project. In particular, the seemingly rambling nature of the text by EV Crowe develops its own rhythm and gives fleeting but illuminating glimpses into the inner life of the play’s protagonist.
The play focuses particularly on the 1968 solo album Nico – The Marble Index (words and music by Christa Päffgen – Nico’s birth name), as well as featuring music by Anna Clyne.
It is not a soundtrack I would recommend for wedding receptions, but it is chaotically beautiful. The most entrancing section builds to a compelling crescendo. It feels like being lost in a forest at twilight with a thunderstorm starting and German folk songs growing louder from somewhere unseen. Sound Designer Helen Atkinson certainly wastes none of Stoller Hall’s expertly crafted acoustics.
It’s not really possible to say what The Nico Project is about in a conventional way. There is no traditional narrative structure and so much is conveyed between the lines and through sound, movement and lighting. Without the acting calibre of Maxine Peake it could have easily collapsed under the weight of its own avant-garde ambition.
Above all, The Nico Project pressed the vexed question of how far we can celebrate someone as an artist and an image without being complicit in the destruction of their mental health for the sake of their iconic status.
As Peake and Frankcom’s Nico says at one point in the piece, “It costs me nothing to show you everything. It does hurt, though.”