Manchestah: The Nico Project & The Fountainhead

I have an intrinsic bias against Manchester. Sorry.

Basically, it boils down to geography. The trains to Manchester always had fewer carriages which meant I normally had to stand, and it always seemed to rain when I went there. And I always got lost. I know that there’s a logic to Manchester somewhere, there has to be, but I don’t know it.

(It’s also a lot of fun to play into the Liverpool vs Manchester battle even when you know it’s part of a ploy to turn working class communities against each other. Apart from when football’s involved. Anyway.)

The last time I was at the Manchester International Festival was 2013 – which was surprising to me. It seems to come around and then happen so quickly, I hadn’t even intended to go in 2013 but my uncle won tickets(?!?) to Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth. The thing I remember most is how unbelievably hot it was in the church it was performed in.

So, given that I’m back in the north, I had no excuse not to go.

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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I would watch Maxine Peake do anything. Literally anything. The thing that is most interesting to me about her relationship with MIF is that it seems to be where she takes her biggest artistic swings: a recitation of The Masque of Anarchy, a fairy that transforms into all manner of things in The Skriker, and now this, The Nico Project.

To call it a biography is wrong, definitely. To call it a play, also wrong. Performance art? Wrong. Concert? Still wrong.

It doesn’t matter that I can’t categorise it, obviously. But it is interesting that it resists so many different types of classification, while embodying qualities of all of those forms.

What it is, is an evocation of something, of what it is like to feel a connection to an artist, as a woman tries to access some part of Nico. EV Crowe’s text is difficult to hang on to, like a piece of text that has been dropped and has shattered, but the woman seems to crave that… spirit of Nico – and then she finds it.

Peake emerges in a brown wig and trench coat, she looks like Nico… sort of. She sounds like Maxine Peake. She hauls a reel of wire onto the stage – oh, it’s attached to a microphone. She plugs it in. She tries to talk, and can’t. The amp fizzes. A chair moves, and then falls over on its own accord.

It’s as if we’ve been dropped into the third act of a horror film, steeped in that imagery with no clues as to what has brought this woman to this place, no explanation what the stakes are and a series of increasingly exciting but increasingly oblique theatrical images to chew on. It’s possibly the most excitingly unpredictable piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. You genuinely don’t know if you’re going to veer into a naturalistic moment or another total, thrilling blackout.

Peake is eventually joined by an all-female fifteen-piece orchestra drawn from The Royal Northern College of Music. They play extraordinary, haunting, string-heavy arrangements of Nico’s work on The Marble Index. Peake sings, sometimes. Sometimes she recites, incants perhaps. Whatever she’s doing is totally hypnotising.

I remembered a description I read of Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet, how he conjured the voice of Old Hamlet from within him, like an exorcism. When Peake pulls forth the voice of Nico from somewhere inside her it’s genuinely shocking. In some ways it’s the most Acting I’ve ever seen her do, it’s a big performance but never breaches the parameters of the piece.

The orchestra is dressed in the uniform of the Hitler Youth. It’s a series of images that you know must fit together somehow, but you have no time to think about a through-line as its happening: The Nico Project seeks to overwhelm the impulse search for a narrative, it accesses something far more elemental, maybe ritualistic.

It feels like that third scene in The Writer – or is that a lazy comparison? Lumping feminist formal innovations together? But it does have that slightly magical, dark, wild quality to it. It does not obey any traditional rules of structure. It serves only its subject matter, but dares to take so many chances it never seems conceited, it feels like a wild, wonderful experiment.

It’s a difficult, frustrating, complicated, and ultimately I think quite a brilliant hour of theatre. There are images from this that will stick with me.

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For my sins, I read The Fountainhead last year. Hated it.

I thought that it was 700 pages of compelling prose, really pulpy stuff. I thought it had the philosophical depth of a puddle. I found the characterisations so utterly ridiculous I couldn’t help but think that Rand had made at least one innovation: it is possible to write a novel in which the protagonist (probably the wrong word) remains totally emotionally static throughout the duration. Rand stacks the deck beautifully: it is simply a McGuffin – one that vastly outstays its welcome.

So, what does that mean on stage? Well, it means that we get a four-hour adaptation that is really quite beautifully acted by one of the most astonishing companies of actors you’re ever likely to see, staged quite arrestingly, and that consistently entertains.

Basically, I went to see it because of Hans Kesting. I wanted to see him on stage again, given that I haven’t got to see his Richard III or his Roy Cohn. He’s brilliant, his Gail Wynard more-than-a-bit channelling Rupert Murdoch, that physical presence – and he knows how to act mic’ed up better than maybe anyone I’ve ever seen. Ramsey Nasr as Roark instils him with an implacable focus and integrity that never seems belligerent, and Halina Reijn grants Dominique Francon a centre that the novel never cares to. They all manage to convey such nuance, such deftness and such charisma with their performances. Always perfectly judged, always elegantly crafted and totally compelling.

All of which is a problem.

You start to notice that the ‘stuff’ that Van Hove does is external: the big tricks of stagecraft are hung on plot, not on character. Because these characters have the dimensions of a Trumpian slogan, on the page the shallowness of the language, the ideas, sings totally clear. Putting those words in the mouths of incredible actors, who could read your bank statement and you’d sit there rapt, is dangerous. They’re convincing with material that has no actual substance. Nothing they say holds weight.

That danger might be a good thing, if theatre doesn’t dare, then what’s the point?

But is rabid individualism really the hill you want to die on? Van Hove may well equate Roark’s passion for integrity with the artist’s vision but there are six other names listed under the ‘creative team’ section of the programme.

At the end of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark finally gets to talk (it’s an interesting change in the adaptation; in the novel, Roark is practically monosyllabic, here he talks as much as anyone,) and explain his philosophy of life. ‘Philosophy’ is being generous. “Man’s first duty is to himself. […] Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive.” No obligations, no hesitations, and an unshakeable integrity in the vision of the self.

Van Hove once said “What I wanted to do was adapt the novel without having to deal with its political context.” It strikes me as astoundingly naïve that he never saw that as an impossible (or damn close to impossible) thing to achieve.

Howard Roark talks of America, praising the principle on which it was founded: “[i]t was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s.”

I was on the train home, scrolling through twitter, watching the clip of Mike Pence turning his back on those men in that camp on the American border, wondering how on earth anyone could possibly think that were true, and how anyone could conscionably stage that in such a cool, uncritical way.

Photos by Tristram Kenton.

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