The house lights are still up as Maxine Peake takes the stage, fumbling with a microphone cord as feedback resonates through the room. This uncomfortableness and realism sets the tone for what’s to follow, as we’re taken down a rabbit hole of artistic and personal expression, a story of a woman yearning to scream and break free.
Given the broad scope and fascinating life Nico led, it’s an incredibly bold move to create such an avant-garde portrayal of her life. Although, those familiar with the performer will see it as a perfect fit. Co-creator and performer Peake (along with co-creator/director Sarah Frankcom and writer E.V. Crowe) has crafted a strikingly unique theatrical experience that takes the audience on a journey not just through Nico’s life, but her struggles both internal and external.
The Nico Project plays out as if it were a recording session for her second solo album, The Marble Index, with Peake stalking the stage with a captivating intensity. She addresses the audience (but really herself), as she battles her inner demons in the pursuit to create something real and pure. Along the way, we’re given glimpses of the struggles she faces — not only as an artist wanting to be understood but as a woman wanting to be heard. Peake gives herself entirely to the performance, telling us “it costs me nothing to give you everything, but it will hurt”, and as a result, she gives us something that’s harrowing, emotional and raw.
She’s joined on stage by musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, who emerge on stage dressed in outfits resembling the Hitler youth, which is fitting given Nico’s childhood in Germany, her father being a Nazi soldier and the role they will end up playing in the production. They serve more than just a musical purpose, as Peake begins to interact with them as if they were her own inner thoughts or memories.
The brilliant musical score (composed by Anna Clyne) builds and builds, complementing the whirlwind performance by Peake, and culminates in a haunting cacophony that resembles David Lynch.
It shouldn’t be lost on people that The Nico Project was made by an all-female creative team. As it unfolds, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a show about a revolutionary artist, but the struggles she faced as a woman navigating this complex world. At its core, it’s a show about a woman trapped and screaming on the inside, where nobody can hear. Screaming to be understood as a performer, screaming to be understood as a person, all delivered with a hauntingly real performance by the amazing Peake.
This intensity is both The Nico Project’s strength and its weakness. While the craft bringing the show to life is top notch, it’s an intense experience that’s certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you let the sights and sounds of Peake and the brilliantly talented young musicians wash over you, you’re in for a theatrical experience unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
The Nico Project runs until Sunday October 19 as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival.
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