Like Nico herself, this theatrical experience is resolutely enigmatic, fraught with anxiety, and ends sooner than expected. With oblique references to the German-born world citizen’s life, and aurally driven by her avant-garde 1968 album The Marble Index, The Nico Project may be a revelation for devotees of a woman once described as “famous but not popular.” For everyone else, this co-production by the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Manchester International Festival and Royal Court theatre company is likely to feel like a dark 50-minute experiment with fleeting moments of beauty, whose context remains unclear.

The Nico ProjectThe Nico Project. Photo © Joseph Lynn

A model who became an actor and musician, Nico was associated with many famous men including John Cale, Jim Morrison, Alain Delon and Federico Fellini. Collaborators, lovers or both, their talent and her own beauty overshadowed Nico’s strange, single-minded creativity. So it’s apt that this tribute 30 years after her death is the work of an all-female creative team. Co-created by actor Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, The Nico Project also features young female musicians and singers from Britain’s Royal Northern College of Music, plus four from Melbourne. They play music by Anna Clyne, and her arrangements of The Marble Index’s tense, claustrophobic hybrid of contemporary classical music and folk-rock.

Peake initially appears alone on the sparse stage, dressed in Nico’s later loose, androgynous style and distinctive long bobbed haircut, with fringe hanging in her eyes. Troubled, unable to get her words out and hampered by (intentional) feedback, she speaks like a Mancunian. Among other cities, Nico lived in Manchester for several years but never lost her German accent – which Peake does flick over to during the show’s most intense moments, also replicating Nico’s deep, monotone voice. Is she playing a woman channelling Nico, or haunted by her? It’s one of the night’s many mysteries.

Peake’s performance is an intense all-in transformation. A bundle of anxiety, doubt and determination, her character speaks in half sentences, half-sings in that distinctive Nico style and sometimes plays her signature instrument, the harmonium. For much of the performance she is joined by the young orchestra, dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms – perhaps a reference to Nico’s early childhood in wartime Germany, but more likely the neo-Nazism sometimes expressed by this woman who otherwise seemed thoroughly bohemian. These accomplished musicians, and two vocalists who sing with ethereal gloom, also perform an increasingly nightmarish kind of minimalist choreography by Imogen Knight, standing on their chairs, thrusting arms in the air, removing their shoes and collapsing like lifeless dolls.

The music becomes an urgent clanging – whose source proves to be one of The Nico Project’s cryptic surprises – and the theatre is briefly plunged into a darkness made almost total by the temporary covering of the ‘exit’ signs nearest the stage. In barely there golden light, Peake’s solo – Nibelungen, which was a bonus track on The Marble Index’s 1991 reissue – is a darkly beautiful epilogue as enigmatic as anything that came before. Nico, the woman, the artist, the troubled soul, remains a mystery.

The Nico Project is at the Playhouse theatre, Melbourne, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, until October 19


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