It seems to me that – despite all the regularly recycled discussions about making theatre accessible and inclusive – class is the one area that theatre consistently gets wrong. As a working class person who goes to the theatre often, so much of the work I see seems to concern itself with middle class dilemmas, while the working classes – if and when they get a look in at all – are too often treated as an issue to be addressed, a problem to be solved.
It’s refreshing, therefore, to come across a voice as authentic and vibrant as that of Kate Tempest, rapper-poet-playwright and South East Londoner, whose warm, funny perspective on the world in which she (presumably) grew up doesn’t shy away from exploring its harsher realities but does so with an all too rare empathy – coupled with a plea that we all should do likewise.
It helps, of course, that her performance style is so likeable and unassuming: dressed plainly in a t-shirt and jeans, she ambles onto the stage with a slightly rambling intro on what a pleasant time she is having in Brighton (saying it’s only polite to tell your hosts how much you’ve enjoyed your day) before cajoling the audience into a rousing chorus of happy birthday for her and the cellist’s mums. She seems shy and self-conscious as she asks us to accompany her on the coming journey – which makes her transformation all the more impressive. Once she launches into her material, she becomes a compact, twitching ball of fury, a force, more than living up to her name. There’s no getting off this ride, once she hits her stride.
The stories within Brand New Ancients are neither wholly original nor free of clichés. It’s a tale of children growing up without fathers, of feckless and angry men and victimised and lonely women; Tempest’s strength is in the way she takes us beyond these overdone tropes, making us live and breathe these characters, so that even at the end, even when we might be horrified by their actions, we understand that they are not without cause.
As a performer her style shifts between poetry and rap, her words accompanied by a four-piece backing band, evocatively scored by Neil Catchpole. Tempest captures the rhythm of working class life and language beautifully; she is a skilled and talented lyricist but she also understands the stutters and the silences of everyday speech, and deploys them like well-placed weapons, her timing impeccable, never missing a beat.
There’s humour here, a few very funny moments, but this is, at its heart, an angry piece, borne of frustration; it also, crucially, feels like an insider’s anger, never coming across like a piece of Channel 4 poverty porn or a Guardian editorial. (I don’t know much about Tempest’s background, but she never feels like she’s a tourist on the streets which she talks about.) Hers is a plea for rediscovery, that we see that we are our own godhead, and a lament for the fact that we have lost sight of our own innate heroism somewhere down the line, distracted by false idols. Her scathing – and hilarious – attack on the X Factor and its ilk makes the point that in ancient times, the gods were accessible and flawed and interested in regular human beings, were in fact more real than the plastic, airbrushed creations we worship today, and she sees our desperate attempts for fame-as-validation as the result of this collective loss of self-worth.
Brand New Ancients is heartfelt in its celebration and recognition of ‘small heroics, everyday epics’; if we could only recognise our own divinity – and that of those around us – we would be far kinder, to ourselves and to others. In an unforgiving world, love is the ultimate act of heroism and the production lauds those brave enough to embrace it, while pitying those who don’t and never shying away from the cost of such cowardice.