Manchester’s claim to Nico comes towards the end of her short life, when during the 1980s she made the city her home. Like her earlier, almost nomadic existence, Nico’s time in the city was a chaotic one of sofa-surfing and heroin addiction. But there was also music. It was here, in 1985 that the German-born star, real name Christa Paffgen, released her last album, Camera Obscura. She also played more than 1000 concerts around the world, keeping Manchester as a base to which she returned.
Nico’s reputation as a film actress, model and a singer with The Velvet Underground gave her an allure that fascinates fans to this day. Her bio from the 60s reads like a surreal name-dropping fest, from lovers Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones to influential links with film-maker Federico Fellini, novelist Ernest Hemmingway, artist Salvador Dali and pop art’s Andy Warhol.
It seems in life Nico, a talent in her own right, was surrounded by talented people, for whom she brought a spark of creative inspiration. The Nico Project confims her long-standing intrigue, except this time it is female rather than male artists who have taken her for their muse.
Here we have two long-standing collaborators on Manchester International Festival: actor, Maxine Peake and director, Sarah Frankcom, combining their talents to co-create an hour-long piece inspired by Nico’s 1968 album The Marble Index. Joining them is a team of highly talented female artists including: Grammy-nominated composer, Anna Clyne; award-winning playwright, EV Crowe; choreographer, Imogen Knight, and two-time Tony-award winning Lighting Designer, Paule Constable.
The Stoller Hall, at Chetham’s School of Music, is, as you would expect, a concert hall venue. It’s a harsh, exposing setting for a solo performer. And Peake, electrifying as ever, owns the space with a vulnerability and intensity that is mesmerising. There is no straight-forward narrative, and it’s not clear if Peak’s monologue is portraying Nico during her 40s when she lived in Manchester or an amalgam of ghostly memories. One moment she’s Mancunian, the next a deep German voice booms from the depth of her diaphragm as if possessed.
This is a portrait of a deeply disturbed soul, and at times it is painful to watch. As we imagine in her life, the angst is somewhat lightened by the music as 15 wonderful young female musicians join Peake on stage. Clyne has incorporated the memorable viola and glockenspiel sounds from the album. The haunting sound builds atmosphere and adds as a distraction from Peake’s intense tremors.
Centre stage is a harmonium – the quirky instrument which was one of few belongings Nico kept with her to the end of her life. Peake tinkles it occasionally, but it doesn’t seem to give comfort. The underlying darkness is pervasive, with the band wearing uniforms similar to Hitler Youth – a reference to Nico’s Nazi soldier father and her troubled childhood.
There is some tortured artistic posturing about what it means to give yourself on stage; the search for a tangible truth through artistic expression, and what happens in the magical space between performer and audience. At times Peake dances as if in ecstasy at other times she slides down walls, or crawls the floor in despair.
In the end, what emerges is a bleak and haunting picture of loneliness and inescapable sadness, that, like the shadow of a ghost, may leave you cold .★ ★ ★
The Nico Project is at The Stoller Hall as part of MIF19 from 12-21 July 2019.
Read our review of Tree at MIF19.