The Gods are in us: Kate Tempest

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I probably found her the way most things are found i.e. through the Youtube recommendation box. I likely typed in something crap, say ‘inspirational poetry,’ which would’ve taken me on one of those epic Youtube journeys. Using my bare wits, I’d calculate if videos were worthy of their eduroam buffering time, steering my way between the Charybdis of 30 second ads and Scylla’s lyric videos (composed entirely in comic-sans) all whilst avoiding the Siren call of the oh-so appetizing thumbnail which, inevitably, turns out to be the same image doing a 2001-powerpoint-turn for ten minutes. It was probably after this that I came across Kate Tempest performing one of her poems. Her signature style is to meld the old myths with the modern (and she does it far better than I ever could).

Following the mandatory Youtube binge I found her magnum opus, Brand New Ancients. It is the tale of two families, with the simple message that we are still as godly and great as the heroes of old. Among the myriad awards received for Brand New Ancients, Tempest won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award for innovation in 2013. So after finding that the show was sold out over the christmas vac, I visited the Royal Court’s bookshop to pick up a print copy of the poem, hoping that it would work as a surrogate for the live performance. But, as I did so, the bespectacled screenplay-typing cashier immediately emerged from his reams of knitwear. He minimized Jane’s monologue to give his own soliloquy on just how great Tempest was live, that the text doesn’t do it justice, and that I should see it on tour (all in the time it took me to type in my pin). But he was right.

Despite the awards for poetry, Brand New Ancients is made for performance.  Having read it, it is a great poem. Yet although I read it with Kate’s cadences, with her accent, I found it frustrating when the page didn’t fetch me the full voice which I knew was there. The text is more like a play than a poem: a monologue tailored to Tempest’s unique skills. Her voice works as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the full poetic power of the piece. It gives her poetry a sense of transience and individuality, an effect that only enhances its message. Fortunately the work is gradually being filmed bit by bit (bit.ly/1bBdPOf) so Brand New Ancient’s poetic legacy will endure in all its multifaceted glory.

I did finally see her in a shiver-inducing sold-out performance at the North Wall.  Accompanied by a mini four-piece orchestra, there’s a real sense of the power of the old forms of oral story-telling. At times the tale was comic, then sentimental, with intermingled scenes – from attempted rape to waking lovers – all sketched in a few lines or a knowing shrug of the shoulders. When Tempest took (seemingly unneeded) moments of breath from her speaking/rapping/rhyming, she allowed the musicians to breath another layer of life into the story. The music, the pace and even the lighting fetched those twists, turns and rib-wrenching emotions that are just not in the text. Again, this is not a critique but an endorsement of just how much it is work to be seen in the flesh. Tempest is at the top of her craft, Brand New Ancients is a wonderful experience, and I suggest that you catch the production (touring the UK for the next year) whilst you still can. 

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