'The Nico Project': Theater Review

Joseph Lynn
Maxine Peake in 'The Nico Project'
An elusive, incomplete portrait of a fabled femme fatale.
7/21/2019

Maxine Peake channels tortured torch singer Nico in this experimental musical drama, world-premiering at the Manchester International Festival.

As a pioneering avant-rock diva, doomed heroin addict and muse to a stellar gallery of famous lovers, Nico has long been a ripe subject for drama. Indeed, her short but eventful life has already inspired multiple plays, books and films — most recently Susanna Nicchiarelli's Nico, 1988, which premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. Born Christa Päffgen in 1938, the German singer's connections to the city of Manchester, where she lived for much of the 1980s, have also helped build feverish buzz around The Nico Project, one of the most hotly anticipated world premieres at this year's biennial Manchester International Festival.

But director Sarah Frankcom and star Maxine Peake (Black Mirror, The Theory of Everything) take a boldly anti-biographical approach in their latest collaborative work, which will disappoint anyone hoping for more conventional insights into Nico's tortured soul and deep local connections. More poetic performance piece than naturalistic drama, The Nico Project frames songs from the singer's extraordinary second solo album, The Marble Index (1968), within an impressionistic monologue that touches only tangentially on the facts of her life as a former model, Fellini co-star, Warhol protegee, Velvet Underground singer, proto-gothic ice queen and renowned bohemian junkie.

Assembled by an all-female creative team, The Nico Project is an admirably bold experiment, but maddeningly cryptic and only sporadically engaging. The program notes make a strong case for reclaiming the singer as a proto-feminist icon whose reputation has been unfairly overshadowed by the famous men in her life. A fertile dramatic theme but the production itself does not live up to such timely, noble intentions. Barely an hour in length, it also hints at alluringly dark material that it simply does not have time to explore.

Even so, the combination of Peake's marquee power and Nico's notoriety, not to mention her timeless music, should spell healthy audience interest for The Nico Project. Co-commissioned by the Melbourne International Arts Festival and London's Royal Court Theatre, this cultish curio already seems to be guaranteed an extended encore. Its short Manchester run sold out weeks ago.

Shuffling onstage in a trenchcoat and a flurry of nervy stutters, Peake initially seems to be playing a version of herself, an anxious actor from the Manchester area straining to summon the spirit of Nico through repeated phrases that eventually start to sound like occult incantations. Gradually, in spasms and shudders, she appears to become possessed by the singer, adopting her stern Teutonic scowl and booming contralto foghorn voice. Peake alternates between these two fluid states throughout the performance, only becoming fully Nico-ized during the musical numbers, where she captures the singer's intense body language and wild onstage vibrations.

Nico's otherworldly songs, discordant and oppressive yet still hypnotically beautiful, are this production's saving grace. Once Peake gets into character, she is joined onstage by 15 young women students from Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music, all dressed in matching uniforms that invoke the Hitler Youth of the singer's childhood in Nazi Germany.

This ensemble's orchestral reworkings of tracks from The Marble Index have a real spine-chilling force, with Peake writhing around the stage as she sings along, backed by two additional vocalists. "No-One is There" and "Frozen Warnings" are particularly effective, gothic siren songs accompanied by sinister choreography, flickering lights and passages of almost total darkness. David Lynch is also involved in the Manchester International Festival this year, and his uncanny signature mood seems to inform these dread-infused numbers. The Nico Project would have had greater dramatic power with more of these witchy set-pieces.

Peake and Frankcom, who is outgoing artistic director of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, share a long track record of acclaimed collaborations, several of which premiered at MIF. The Nico Project is one of their most fearless high-wire walks to date, but also one of their most uneven. Peake is reliably magnetic in almost any role, but the largely abstract text here, by playwright E.V. Crowe, gives her too little to work with. Her cyclical repetitions, reminiscent of Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill at times, only hint obliquely at Nico's drug-damaged mental state and the risky, agonizing process of artistic creation in general. Potentially fascinating themes get lost in a hall of broken mirrors.

Nico died in 1988, aged just 49. The Nico Project ultimately feels like a failed séance, a thwarted attempt to channel her troubled spirit from the afterlife. Empty chairs suddenly upturn, lights flicker eerily, doors swing open unaided, but the ghost never arrives.

Venue: The Stoller Hall, Manchester
Performer/co-creator: Maxine Peake
Director/co-creator: Sarah Frankcom
Musicians: Emily Olsen, Andra Vornicu, Anna Barsegjana, Wanshu Qui, Reyan Murtadha, Rachel Newbold, Alia Eyres, Emily Revil, Jessica Holmes, Chloe Tang, Sarah Keen, Sophie Smith, Lauren Rosborough, Ellen Beth Abdi, Phoebe May Maddison
Music: Anna Clyne
Text: E.V. Crowe
Set and costume designer: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Helen Atkinson
Presented by Manchester International Festival, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Royal Court Theatre