Review: The Nico Project (Manchester International Festival)

Manchester International Festival is your opportunity to see something different. Something new, something especially commissioned, someone new, someone big…

The Nico Project is the perfect case study of all of the above.

The late Nico, real name Christa Paffgenmade, entered the musical zeitgeist in 1967 with The Velvet Underground, and the ‘show’ is inspired by her 1968 album, The Marble Index.

Maxine Peake as Nico – Credit: John Shard

With Maxine Peake in the title role and artistically directed by Sarah Frankcom, The Nico Project is billed as ‘a stirring theatrical immersion into her sound, her identity and the world in which she fought to be heard’.

Taken at face value and with or without a background knowledge of this artist/actor/model, her work, her predilections in life and, indeed music, before her premature death, the show is a 60 minute assault on the senses.

Credit: Joseph Lynn

Assault is perhaps the the wrong word as it evokes negative connotations. Although given the haunting and troubled persona of the late Nico herself, the message being sent through the performance and indeed the musical orchestrations aren’t intending to take the audience on a nice stroll through the park. So yes, let’s stick with assault.

A company/outfit/cast of all female performers, the pre-reading tells us that the show ‘celebrates the potency of female creativity in a field dominated by men’.

artistic director sarah frankcom in rehearsals - image stephen king
Artistic Director, Sarah Frankcom, in rehearsals. Credit: Stephen King.

Apparently, this wasn’t intentional but according to Maxine Peake in an interview with The Guardian ‘felt right…I could only seem to find male stories about Nico.’

Indeed, synonymous with Andy Warhol. Lou Reed, John Cale… and her relationship with the French actor, Alain Delon, it is perhaps perversely apt that the production is wholly brought to us by a solely female outfit.

To the show itself.

The Royal Northern College of Music brought not only the music to life, but did so with a visual performance to boot – they were striking in their choreography and acting as they interacted with Peake, both instruments in hand and without.

the-nico-project-at-manchester-international-festival.-credit-joseph-lynn.
Credit: Joseph Lynn

As the musical performance steadily reaches its crescendo throughout the hour, so does the unravelling of Nico’s mind and visuals laid before us – erratic lighting, hair let down and wild, shoes off…Peake, appearing on the balcony is a messiah-like moment both in her delivery and stature.

And, like much of the performance, it’s disturbing. It’s meant to be and frankly it’s reassuringly and acceptably so.

Watching  Peake slip in and out of the persona and,  indeed, accent (intentionally!) – from the familiar Lancashire voice into the clipped, groaning voice and intonation of Nico, is at best mesmerising, at worst frightening.

maxine-peake-in-the-nico-project-at-manchester-international-festival.-credit-joseph-lynn-1
Credit: Joseph Lynn

Indeed at the moment the theatre was plunged into absolute darkness for what was probably a minute or so but felt like hours, closing off one sense allowed a certain respite to gather one’s thoughts and, to be honest, panic slightly about what on earth was coming next (certainly for me, accompanied by a frisson of excitement).

My advice as with anything avant-garde, off kilter, experimental art is to go, absorb and see what emotions you take away with you. Don’t approach with a list of questions or immediately deconstruct).

Credit: Joseph Lynn

Productions such as this and, indeed, events such as the Manchester International Theatre give you the gift of originality and expression of freedom. And this really is a gift.

And now for the Manchester connection – Nico did indeed visit Manchester in 1982 for a gig and never did leave (well, save for the odd European Tour).

Guess that makes her an Honorary Manc too…

 

 

 


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