Brand New Ancients
Kate Tempest's poetic solo show at the Royal Court is an Odyssey for the 21st Century
Kate Tempest, born and bred in East London, started out as a rapper and has since expanded her work to include poetry, play and novel writing. In Brand New Ancients, she has crafted a modern Odyssey, an epic poem about some of the seedier sides of life in the capital's streets.
Before starting the performance, Tempest offers a brief, informal welcome, inviting us to relax in her company and pointing out that the most important part of any story is who that story is being told to.
She then begins to spit out the tale in a mix of rap and rhythmical spoken word, backed by a live musical accompaniment that swells and recedes with her words (at this performance the music was brilliantly provided by Kwake Bass on percussion and electronics, Jo Gibson on tuba, Natasha Zielazinkski on cello and Raven Bush on violin).
The premise is that in modern times we are all gods, living our lives and toying with others', just as the Greek gods did. "When they excavate the modern day, they'll find us: the brand new ancients."
Over the course of around 70 minutes, we are introduced to two neighbouring couples and an adulterous relationship, and follow their children as they grow up, form crucial friendships, struggle to find their place in life, and experience success and trauma. The quest to forge a career, a vivid portrait of a victim fighting back, an affectionately scathing skit on certain Saturday night TV shows; all life is here in its gritty glory.
Tempest is in perpetual motion, always gesturing, twitching or pacing, animated by the words as they emerge from her. Her own obvious enjoyment of some of the lines is infectious, but never smug or self-satisfied; this performance isn't about her, it's about the words and their impact.
And Tempest is a true wordsmith. There are moments throughout Brand New Ancients where everything comes together in a way that is truly exhilarating, like the pleasure of seeing a firework explode a few seconds after its launch. I suspect that for everyone, there will be at least one turn of phrase that hits home like a punch in the chest. To give an example would diminish the experience, though; you'll just have to see it for yourself as it tours the capital over the coming months.
Brand New Ancients is at the Royal Court until 16 November as part of a UK tour