Kate Tempest has brought the mythic down to the streets of south London, and raised the streets to meet it with a firm, uncompromising grip. Performance poet, rap battle veteran and Brockley-born storyteller of giddy wit and fierce integrity, Tempest follows up her debut play Wasted with her first solo theatre show.
Take Daniel Kitson’s heart and eye for the lows and the highs of unwitnessed lives, stitch them into a tiger and give it fifteen years in a Lewisham comp and Tempest would still growl it down with her blend of rage, rhythm and soulful rhetoric. Her performances have shivered through the crowds at Latitude, ricocheted around pubs in Peckham and New Cross and set YouTube alight, but her work in the past twelve months has also revealed her as a dramatist of considerable talent and promise you can taste in the air.
Brand New Ancients starts with the conviction that there is no part of us that is not of the Gods, that there are no streets or shops that don’t contain the models of heroes and their tragedies. Tempest asks what will be found when ‘they excavate the modern day’, what dig-teams and academics a thousand years from now will dig from the soil that lies above Catford, and what they’ll make of the way lives were lived and time was passed.
To illustrate her conceit she weaves a breathless multi-generational narrative of broken homes and hearts, domestic violence that sends splinters of cruelty down the bloodline and of the redemptive power of love. The familial betrayals and the monstrous coincidences of sex and vengeance that power the great tragedies of Aeschylus or Euripides find their counterparts in modern-day commonplaces. Her tragic kings smoke Lambert and Butlers and go to bed with Thai Brides half their age, her avenging queens twist broken beer bottles into the stomachs of speed-horny adolescents, but she defiantly stares down any suggestion of sordidness. Tempest refuses to condemn even the most violent and anti-social inhabitants of her Oresteia. Two vicious teenagers sunk in hoodies and misanthropy are praised for that bond which ties them together against the world. Once they might have been warriors, she reminds us, now there’s nothing to fight for, or at least nothing society has kept at their eye level.
Tempest’s narrative is delivered in her characteristic undulating couplets, filled with ingenious and unexpected rhymes and surging endlessly forward. Her words roll out like punches, but she rarely allows herself to be swallowed by outright aggression. When she slips into a full-on rap, it aims for euphoria rather than capitulation. Her performance is brilliantly underscored by a live quartet, who perform Nell Catchpole’s throbbing score with invigorating vitality.
Kwake Bass’s percussion in particular, which flips constantly from clicking, popping electronics to build-and-release post-rock dynamics, is stunning. Catchpole’s score hits a sweet spot no one could have predicted between a verdant ancient world and ketamine lounge. Tempest finally gets to play rock star, and when she breaks from firing verses to sit and soak up the music she is visibly overwhelmed. In an impressive musical and poetic vortex of her own creation,
Tempest is a humble and generous centre-point. Her political and social intelligence and her spirit of humane rage have never been in doubt, but Brand New Ancients is an artistic and spiritual achievement of considerable magnitude.