Forever immortalised in the nonchalant Velvet Underground line-up or gracing Chelsea Girl, Nico’s near mythical status as a muse, beauty and heroin addict is well known. Maxine Peake, who bears a striking resemblance to her, channels her anxiety, cheekbones and cold turkey shakes as she takes up a microphone in front of a live female orchestra from The Royal Northern College of Music.
The Nico Project a musically-led all female show co-created by Peake and director Sarah Frankcom and is their third collaboration at Manchester International Festival following The Masque of Anarchy in 2013 and The Skriker in 2017.
Clearly admirers of the German-born model/actor/singer who lived and partied in Manchester during the 80s, this performance art and concert focuses on Peake embodying the spirit of Nico. This is not a biographical walk through her life but instead explores The Marble Index, Nico’s second solo album from 1968, an avant-garde exploration of doom overseen by the composer Anna Clyne.
Performed in the stark, modern surroundings of The Stoller Hall, based in Chetham’s School of Music, the world-class acoustics amplify Peake’s/Nico’s raw rock ‘n’ roll vocals.
The spotlight is very much shining on Peake throughout the performance, who clearly delights in playing her self-confessed heroine. She is backed by the orchestra, dressed in German girl guide uniforms and two singers with startling voices which build and take the audience on a hypnotic voyage. Tunes such as Ari’s Song, written for Nico’s son, and Frozen Warnings, which talks of being “close to the frozen borderline, frozen warnings close to mine”, are notoriously difficult to unpack but are sung with so much intensity that at one point Peake/Nico collapses on stage as if overcome with emotion.
Gone is the blonde 60s Factory girl, once an inspiration for Andy Warhol. Instead we meet Nico with brown hair, a khaki and black outfit, smoking and stumbling over her words as she sings with her infamously cold vocals while hunched over her harmonium.
Speaking recently to Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC 6 Music, Peake said how she’d always had an “obsession” with Nico but didn’t want to create an historical piece as she had such a “male dominated” story. She and Frankcom consulted females in the music industry from the band PINS to the journalist Miranda Sawyer, and tried to understand what it is to be a woman in such a masculine space and appreciate how Nico must have felt more than 50 years ago.
Peake’s performance is essential viewing and listening for Nico fans as it channels the uneasy lyrics and frenetic energy of the iconic artist. It’s an atmospheric piece with lyrics like “midnight winds are landing at the end of time” sung over and over, echoing around the hall. Often overlooked as the “priestess of darkness”, The Nico Project proves Nico’s haunting lyrics and devil-may-care spirit can take centre stage as an expression of industrial chic and as part of the fabric of Manchester’s musical history.
The Nico Project is running as part of Manchester International Festival until July 21, 2019. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.