Review: The Nico Project/Tao of Glass (Manchester International Festival)

Sarah Crompton reviews two shows that are part of the 2019 Manchester International Festival

Maxine Peake
Maxine Peake
© Joseph Lynn

One of the appealing qualities of the Manchester International Festival under the directorship of John McGrath is the way it celebrates Manchester itself, using its hidden spaces, commemorating its history and welcoming home its native sons and daughters.

It isn't necessarily the first place you think of when you call to mind the singer Nico – try Berlin, where she grew up, or New York where she made her name with Velvet Underground – but she did spend 10 years here in the grip of heroin addiction, but still working, touring, dreaming of a new life.

Which lends resonance to The Nico Project, co-created by the actress Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, whose long-running partnership has been one of the UK's great cultural glories. This is a show that doesn't so much attempt to explain Nico as to summon her troubled spirit.

The all women creative team also includes Anna Clyne, who provides music which riffs on Nico's haunting, ground-breaking, album The Marble Index, EV Crowe, who provides a text that – slightly confusingly – sets up a conversation between Peake and Nico about artistry, loneliness and life, and designers Lizzie Clachlan and Paule Constable (responsible for lighting) who transform the Stoller Hall into a space full of shadows and eerie light.

Peake is surrounded by a wall of wailing sound from an all female orchestra of musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, initially dressed in neat uniforms and pigtails, their hair and their gestures becoming more uninhibited and wild as both Peake's suffering and her intensity increases, movement director Imogen Knight sending her whirling around the stage in a wild, almost bacchanal dance of agony and power.

It's transfixing. The moment when each of the girls raise their arms and leave the stage, a simultaneous gesture of defiance and surrender, is uncannily moving. But it is also sometimes baffling and in reaching for profundity, the script tips into melodrama. Peake is compelling, standing above the stage like a solitary angel, staring moodily through her fringe, dancing like a banshee.

Peake was born in Bolton though she has scored many triumphs at the Manchester Royal Exchange, the theatre that made Phelim McDermott, founder of Improbable Theatre, dream of being a theatre-maker himself and the hugely personal Tao of Glass begins with him sitting on one of the bench seats, chatting to the audience about his memories of watching great productions in the past.

It evolves into a show about nothing, about his desire to create a piece with Philip Glass, the composer, with whose music McDermott has always been obsessed. "It flows like a river through my life." Their original plans, to collaborate with the writer Maurice Sendak, came to nought, but that is the starting point for a truly magical journey in which with – the help of three puppeteers – McDermott conjures thoughts about consciousness, ways of seeing, and above all what imagination and music can mean and where they can take you.

Glass's compositions, played by three young musicians, permeate the action, creating its contemplative, questioning mood. Towards the end, a grand piano is wheeled in and Glass plays – remotely, a recording of his performance activating the keys – as McDermott listens. You think that's it. And it's a lot.

But then, in these early Manchester performances, the man himself appears. There's a collective intake of breath, a gasp of surprise, a prick of tears. As he sits and plays the piano, it feels like a moment of grace.

The Nico Project: 3 stars
Tao of Glass: 5 stars