Considering Far Out’s usually comprehensive coverage of the Manchester music scene, it is refreshing to find ourselves entering an unfamiliar theatre venue for the opening night of a particularly intriguing new production.
The time has come again for Manchester International Festival, the city’s bi-annual unveiling of a host of premieres and one-offs – this year ranging from audio-sensory discoveries at the Museum of Science and Industry, right through to huge outdoor gigs from pop stars like Janelle Monae.
Tonight, though, we have come to witness one of the region’s greatest exports of recent years, Maxine Peake, help combine music and theatre in an effort to excavate a new level of understanding of one of the last centuries most misunderstood female artists.
After going into modelling following a grim childhood in post-war Germany, Nico probably became best-known as lead vocalist with The Velvet Underground. But tonight the team behind this production aim to shed new – if rather fragmented – light on an artist who, according to the programme preview, led a life looked upon ‘through the eyes of men’.
As a result, rather than any kind of coherent narrative or biographical approach, the show is an onslaught of a monologue, seeing Peake crash back and forth between the most uncomfortable and distorted of dilemmas that lay in Nico’s mind.
The show starts with her walking on to feedback from two amps that sit each side of the stage – perhaps setting some up to assume a typical ‘rock ‘n’ roll biography’ is to follow – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The monologue provided by Peake is fascinating, but extremely difficult to dissect. For longer pieces of speech, Peake sticks to her default Bolton accent, only straying into Nico’s trademark German drawl during certain refrains. The switch is occasionally distracting. However, it is the all-female group of teenage students from the Royal Northern College of Music who prove to be the real draw.
Their dress inspired by the Hitler Youth is a dark reminder worn on the show’s sleeve of Nico’s sinister upbringing and family links to Nazi Germany. Their combination of soaring orchestral pieces – reimagined from her album The Marble Index truly bring the production to life. Poignancy and mystique are maintained, while the bluntness and angular side of her work is perfectly represented.
Clever lighting and a swirling use of choreography bring the whole experience to life, with the orchestra arranged in different positions every time the lights go up – a stark metaphor for the chaos in Nico’s mind the directors are aiming to depict.
It’s the kind of production that (apart from the odd dip into lyrics from the album) is so abstract on its surface, there must undoubtedly be mixed reactions as the audience begin to filter out. But again it could be argued this is in clever keeping with Nico’s work in itself.
One thing is for sure, however, this is the kind of immersive take on culture that MIF should pride itself upon.