I was meant to see Brand New Ancients when it was at the Young Vic in January. In the end I went to see a panto instead. The next day my friends were glowing in their praise of Kate Tempest’s one-woman show. I smiled politely, and nodded in all the right places: I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.
At last I can now play catch-up. At last I understand what all the hype is about. Kate Tempest is mesmeric in her clever and witty journey through language in her biting critique of contemporary urban society.
We are immediately disarmed by Tempest. “You don’t have to pretend you’re not here” we are told, as she pricks the somewhat stifling pretence of grandeur that the Royal Opera House consciously or subconsciously holds over audiences. Her work comes with a brief yet punchy preamble: “It is much easier to tell ourselves that our rage isn’t right [than deal with it].” Our rage against the societal institutions that suffocate us, our rage against the machine even. On love, empathy and class we are agreed: “I don’t know what to do, but things need to be done.” Or put more simply: “things are fucked up.”
Rather than losing focus by attempting to nail all that is wrong or unjust, Tempest tailors her spoken word to the stories of certain characters. We see these characters grow up, explore life, make mistakes, die or redeem themselves. What makes Brand New Ancients so intelligent is that the characters we meet are explained and understood, not demonised and vilified. Clive and Spider (named such for the facial scar he received when Clive set fire to his bedroom) are studied through a wide lens, taking in the society that born and raised them, yet steering well clear of any patronising middle-class ‘Hug A Hoodie’ diatribe. They “have nothing to fight for but fighting itself”, yet the fault of this doesn’t lie squarely on their shoulders.
Tempest’s words are relatable. They leave the audience transfixed. We understand the symbolism she uses. We’ve all felt it at one point or another. “The giggle rippling up and down his spine” is akin to the excitement we’ve all experienced, and at times Tempest’s language takes on almost biblical proportions; Simon Cowell “took the eyes from our heads and blamed us for our blindness” (indeed, Cowell and co come under stinging condemnation; “the perma-tanned god of our age” is partially responsible for a land where “we don’t know the names of our neighbours, but we do know the names of the rich, untalented and famous”). True enough.
This secular sermon is accompanied effortlessly by Tempest’s four-piece orchestra. They contribute to, but never dominate, the stories being told. Likewise with the powerful use of lighting. They are a haunting addition, emotive yet never mushy or schmaltzy.
“What I want is small heroics, everyday epics,” Tempest says. I think we’re all capable of that. I’m off to introduce myself to the neighbours.
Brand New Ancients is on tour, ending at Battersea Arts Centre on 20 April.