Manchester International Festival, July 2019

Chetham’s Stoller Hall is set up for a small orchestral recital: stools, music stands and instruments fill the centre of the stage.

When Maxine Peake enters stage right (wearing a thin black coat over a belted khaki jacket, black trousers and brown mid-heel boots) her style and long fringed bob remind me very much of my English teacher, circa 1980!

She appears to be about to introduce a school concert, but instead, she paces back and forth, questioning herself while repeating lines from Nico’s song “Lawns of Dawns”, as if she’s rewriting the lyrics…

“Is she going to play her with a northern accent?” I wonder, feeling worried.

But no. Something else is going on. Maxine is playing out her struggle to channel Nico, a k.a. Christa Päffgen, formerly of The Velvet Underground, who died in 1988, having spent several years living around Manchester and Salford.

She speaks to us directly now… she says she’s been going to the station to search for “her”; “she” is homeless, lost, and needs to be rescued, urgently, from some unspecified malevolence. (Stoller Hall is opposite Victoria Station…)

“Not a friend in the world”, she says again, becoming more agitated. As her distress reaches a climax, she cries out, and in the abrupt silence which follows, a chair topples over on the far side of the stage. The atmosphere is charged… we all gawk, trying to figure out if this is a stunt or an accident!

I can’t remember, thinking back, if Nico’s voice had already started to emerge from Maxine’s mouth before the chair fell. First Maxine was speaking with her own voice; then Nico’s deep, heavily accented intonation took over, just for a sentence or two, before reverting.

We were watching a psychic medium channel a spirit message.

Soon after the chair fell, a girl in uniform entered stage left and picked it up. Maxine thanked her. Then more schoolgirls appeared (there were fourteen in all); they took up instruments and began to play. (I later read that the girls were wearing the uniform of Hitler Youth – a reference to Nico’s early childhood in wartime Germany. I had wrongly assumed it was Chetham’s own uniform! Odd colours, I thought: green and yellow!)

Maxine is fully Nico now; her body language is calmer, more commanding and self-assured. She lounges as she speaks her lyrics over the music.

Demon is dancing down the scene
He is calling and throwing his arms up in the air
And no one is there
…No one is there.

Later, the schoolgirls will throw their arms up and hold still, echoing these words. Later still, a friend of Nico’s will explain that this song is about Richard Nixon! (FB discussion.)

I wish I had taken notes, but the audience were ultra-respectful and I didn’t want to disturb anyone. When the music played, I could have rooted in my bag for a pen and paper, but what would happen when it stopped? I’d have to freeze awkwardly to avoid making a sound. It seemed wiser to sit motionless for the full 60 minutes! From what I remember, songs from Nico’s 1968 album The Marble Index were performed in order, with Ari’s Song and Facing The Wind following No One Is There.

Nico sits down at her harmonium with her back to us… but soon she slowly slides to the floor and falls asleep, only rousing as the song ends. Later, she’s facing us, seated but hunched over. She absent-mindedly lights a cigarette, seeming masculine in her self-absorbtion. She thinks nothing of us; perhaps she does not see us.

Later still, she becomes animated, engrossed by the music, wildly conducting the musicians, some of whom stand on their chairs while playing. But then we see she is lost in her music, possessed by it… the schoolgirls abandon the stage, and she’s left alone, with sounds still blasting through speakers.

Now it’s quiet. Maxine is herself again. And she’s not happy with us!

She’s questioning why she’s putting herself through this difficult process. She’s pissed off. “I pour myself into this completely…” she says, or words to that effect… “I ask myself all the time – What is this thing? What is this thing which we are doing? Making? …Someone coughs and it’s destroyed! Gone!”

Numerous nervous coughing fits erupt. We sit there awkwardly. Oh Maxine, we are not worthy of your labours!

(I am motionless, deeply thankful that my throat doesn’t tickle and my stomach isn’t growling.)

The musicians return and so does Nico with Side Two of The Marble Index… I remember Frozen Warnings and Evening of Light.

Another crescendo, silence and a total blackout! There’s a long pause as our eyes readjust. Nico appears standing high above the stage, hallowed in unearthly glow like a Madonna apparition.

“I will tell the world what happened to me!” she exclaims!

“What exactly did happen to you?” I think darkly…

Maxine has allowed herself to become possessed by the spirit of Nico, temporarily, before our eyes. But Nico is also possessed, by something much more sinister, and that’s the problem for Maxine… that’s why she’s angry. She’s put herself in harm’s way, doing this piece… for what purpose? For us?

I think we were all relieved when The Nico Project drew to a close… not least because the music was so loud towards the end that it hurt! Applause was genuine but not overly fulsome. After all, we’d all been roundly admonished by the star only twenty minutes earlier! I looked at Maxine and wondered what she was thinking… “Thank God that’s over!,” or maybe “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!”

“She’s amazing, isn’t she?”, sighed a woman behind me, as we filed out of the hall. (No idea what that was all about, but my God, she’s amazing.)

The Nico Project is an impressive and admirable work – for what it isn’t, as much as for what it is. This is not the story of Nico, which can be read elsewhere; the soft targets of glamour and squalor are not the focus, and men are absent (as is humour, which is a weakness, though I’m not sure how this might be overcome, given the doom-laden tone of the show and the music on which it is based.) Nico, herself, and her work take centre stage, as per the intention of co-creators Peake and Sarah Frankcom.

I’m most impressed when I consider the young musicians… they will surely never forget the intensity of this unique experience!

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“There was an April afternoon, when I was in tenth grade, that the Girl’s Choir had to meet for its final rehearsal before the spring concert… Our director, Miss Field, began to wave her arms at us, and a strange spell came over our throats. Our nerves tightened and all the bones of our ears fell in line. It was Miss Field’s own arrangement of a Schubert rhabsody, and the notes, for once, took flight. .. this wasn’t personal, this singing, this light, this was girls, after weeks of rehearsal, celebrating the ethereal work of their voices… Strung along the same wire of song, we lost ourselves… formed a single living thing …(it) struck us deep in the brain and low in the spine, like a call, and its wave and swell lifted us, I swear, to the ceiling in astonishment and bliss, we sounded that beautiful. All of us could hear it, standing in the midst of it, no boys, no parents in the room, no one else to tell us, though we never managed to sound that beautiful again.”

From Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

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This is a great article – very funny: Nico In Manchester, and so’s this: Nico The Manchester Years.