‘It makes sense to take a theatrically experimental approach to this work; what baffled me was the falsity that hollows out its artifice.’ Alison Croggon on The Nico Project
We all have moments when a show scrapes our very soul, like nails down a blackboard. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen. And The Nico Project, now playing at the Arts Centre Playhouse for the Melbourne Festival, was one of those moments for me.
Aside from the sumptuous music, almost every aspect of its aesthetic – created by actor Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, with text by V.E. Crowe – made me want to scream. I went home and drank three angry martinis and woke up with a hangover, which proves my contention that bad art is bad for your health.
Three days later, I’m trying to articulate why: because I reacted as viscerally as I did, it makes it hard to write about. On paper The Nico Project seemed, rather, the kind of show I’m inclined to love – a work by women, that seeks to excavate the kinds of damage that women are dealt in a patriarchal world by evoking a charismatic, troubling and troubled female artist, and which seeks to avoid the obvious cliches by responding directly to her art.
In this case, the artist is Nico, born Christa Päffgen in 1938 Germany. Her father was enlisted in the army and died, reportedly in an asylum, after suffering severe head injuries. When she was a young woman, she was notable for her extraordinary beauty and became a model – eventually the first of the supermodels – and a celebrated femme fatale. Her biography is often recited through her many lovers: Alain Delon, with whom she had a son, Ari; Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jackson Brown, Jim Morrison…
Most famously, Andy Warhol installed her as the front singer for The Velvet Underground, and she subsequently released two solo albums – Chelsea Girls (1967) and The Marble Index (1968), which later inspired artists like Patti Smith, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Morrissey, Elliott Smith and Björk.
As several commenters have said, Nico’s life was marked by trauma, beginning with World War 2. She was raped at 15 by a US officer, and forced to testify in court. After her time with Warhol’s Factory, she became addicted to heroin for 15 years, her oblivion of choice. She embraced her physical decline – she was never happy when she was pretty, she said, so it was better to be ugly. She died at 49, her absence ensuring the myths that grew around her.
The Nico Project is the latest in a couple of rethinkings of Nico’s legacy. Susanne Ofteringer’s 1995 documentary Nico Icon follows her life “from cutie German mädchen to the first of the supermodels, to glamorous diva of the Velvet Underground, to cult item, junkie and hag”. Last year saw the release of Italian filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli’s biopic Nico, 1988. The Nico Project, in contrast, eschews biography. The idea is that Peake – in the brunette fringe and androgynous trench coat of Nico’s hag phase – isn’t performing Nico but rather a woman who is possessed by her.
Nico is present on stage in her music, which is given some glorious arrangements by Anna Clyne. The songs, taken from The Marble Index, are performed by a band of young women dressed in Hitler Youth costumes. This is a reference to Nico’s fascist sympathies – she once notoriously caused a near riot in Berlin by performing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, complete with the verses banned after the fall of Nazi Germany. There were also well-documented incidents of racism. Whatever Nico’s politics were – she also courted controversy by embracing the far-left Baader-Meinhoff terrorist gang – there’s a whiff of white supremacy that’s also reflected in her songs, with their strong echoes of Volk symbolism.
None of this complexity is dealt with by the text or in Peake’s performance. It makes sense to take a theatrically experimental approach to this work; what baffled me, from the very beginning, was the falsity that hollows out its artifice. Looping up a mic cable and wincing at feedback, Peake saunters on stage and speaks in her own Mancunian accent (she only reaches for Nico’s German accent in heightened moments). She stutters a text that seems to be reaching towards sound poetry, although without either its abstraction or linguistic viscerality, which is only evoked by Peake’s gagging as she attempts to spit out the broken sentences.
As the show evolved, I was taken aback by how little purchase or intellectual curiosity there was in the words. There’s an apparent offering of creative vulnerability and doubt or of quotidian moments that renders both utterly banal, an obscurity that points only to shallows. At one point Peake speaks of how she is obsessed by her relationship to the audience, only to spend most of the performance with her back turned to us. What never communicated itself to me was any sense of emotional or intellectual realness, either in relationship to the audience, or outside it. There was neither desire or undesire, nor trauma, nor hatred, nor darkness, nor anything really.
This kind of theatre – a performance of non-performance – depends, crucially, on a sense of transparency in the actor’s presence; a sense – however illusory – of true uncertainty in the border between the actor’s performed and real self. It’s an art that Back to Back Theatre, for example, has perfected, most recently in The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, but you see it in Adena Jacob’s work, especially with young people, or in some of Daniel Schlusser’s adventures into hyper-realism.
Transparency in performance doesn’t occur just by talking about it, and it certainly can’t be “performed”. It simply is something. And it was this sense that was missing for me: although I was always told it was there, I never felt it. Indeed, for almost all of The Nico Project, I didn’t know why Peake was there; she seems almost superfluous to the proceedings.
She moves randomly around the stage, weaving between the musicians in an affectless and hyperconsciously artless way that becomes increasingly empty. I suppose I get it: Nico is unlikeable, a woman whose trauma renders her incapable of human connection, and who in her later incarnation as the gothic queen of darkness never sought to please her audiences, often berating her own band on stage. But this seems too pat. We, as the audience, still need to know why she’s there in front of us.
The real theatricality exists in the young women in the band, who become increasingly disheveled as the music intensifies. Around 20 minutes in, it felt like the show finally began: the stage is plunged into blackness, and from the auditorium Peake’s voice intones several times: “I’m going to tell everyone what happened to me”. It introduces an unexpectedly moving sequence of abstract theatricality that ends with each musician facing the audience, their arms raised, as they serially leave the stage.
But then we’re back to banality. The show ends abruptly with Peake singing Niebelung unaccompanied and alone on stage. The poignancy and depth this moment is aiming for is clear: the sudden spotlight on a riven soul made whole for a fragmentary moment through her art. But for me, it just didn’t happen.
The Nico Project, co-created by Maxine Peake or Sarah Frankcom. Music by Anna Clyne, text by E.V. Crowe, movement by Imogen Knight, design by Lizzie Clachan, lighting design by Paule Constable, sound design by Helen Atkinson. Performed by Maxine Peake and musicians. Manchester International Festival, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 19. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible, assistive hearing