How can The Nico Project excavate a woman who has been stuck in the mythical permafrost for as long as Nico – and why would it want to? Since her death aged 49 in 1988, the German musician, model and muse has become a footnote in the mid-20th-century avant garde, more famous for her liaisons than for her art. Straddling the worlds of music, art and film, she was a bit player in the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan were among her lovers, while the French film star Alain Delon was the father of her son.
But she was also an artist in her own right, a musical expressionist whose eerie, druggy aesthetic has cast a ghostly influence over later generations of musicians. Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake, quite rightly, avoid the objectification of a simple biographical approach. Instead, they channel her through her 1968 album The Marble Index, taking their cue from its most chilling line: “It’s holding me against my will.”
The houselights stay up in the Stoller Hall as, dressed in a slouchy black coat, Peake wanders on to a stage laid out for an orchestra and gripy with audio feedback. At first she is hesitant, speaking partly on, and partly off, mic. Then on file 15 young female musicians, whose shiny faces and identical Hitler Youth uniforms offer the one piece of biographical mooring, to Nico’s early childhood in Nazi Germany, where she was born in 1938.
This, it becomes clear, is a show all about possession. Peake is possessed by her subject, her voice swooping in and out of a creepy replica of Nico’s deep, German-accented contralto. Nico is in thrall to any number of demons – most prosaically to heroin, but also to her own myth, and the dark side of sanity. Importantly, and most compellingly, both actor and subject are possessed by their creative mission.
In doing so, the show makes a powerful point: it is not the world of men around whose periphery Nico flits, but the orchestra of her own life. While always playing wonderfully and inventively (at one point, a violinist bows with a hair comb), the ensemble becomes increasingly frantic and disorganised, until the players unbraid their hair and abandon their instruments to join Nico on the edge of the abyss. You don’t need to know anything about her to be gripped by this metaphor for damaged creativity.
A fascination with the tortured artist also animates Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s dramatisation of The Fountainhead, the 1943 novel by Ayn Rand, which has lately become a calling card for rightwing politicians. Rand poured her theories of heroic individualism into her portrait of the young architect Howard Roark, whose self-belief is so self-annihilatingly absolute that he’s prepared to torch his own social housing project rather than allow it to be modified (dismayingly, Donald Trump and the British home secretary, Sajid Javid, are among those to have claimed him as a hero).
Ivo van Hove’s monumental adaptation runs to over four hours on a vast white stage of the Lowry Centre. Reel-to-reel tape recorders whirr in the background, and an architectural drawing board commands the foreground, on to which Ramsey Nasr’s flint-eyed Roark sketches buildings that loom into life on a screen in real time. Around him play chamber dramas of societal burn-out – a perfidious, alcoholic second-rater whose ambition is fanned by his elderly mother; a critic puffed up by his ability to make or break reputations; a cynical newspaper tycoon.
At the black heart of Rand’s vision is Roark’s sadomasochistic relationship with a beautiful young idealist (Halina Reijn), who is so turned on by his rape of her that she sublimates herself in ever greater acts of sexual and social abasement in order to feel, and feed, his fire. It’s all very stylish and watchable, but also massively overinvested in the narcissistic myth of the great (male) artist. In allowing the devil all the best tunes, Van Hove seems to have forgotten he’s the devil.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Nico Project ★★★★
The Fountainhead ★★★
• The Nico Project is at the Stoller Hall, Manchester, until 21 July