The chamber reeled, applauded, cheered, rose. The aftershock of Kate Tempest’s eighty-minute epic needed a momentary eternity to absorb. This was not poetry for pages; instead verses cascaded Homerically from this fresh-faced East Londoner in a torrent of seamy plot and urban commentary. Within minutes, something both very old and very new was felt to be brewing.
Kate delivered a soiled, almost soap-operatic tale of modern life, but sewn in was sublimity. “Look again | and you will see the Gods rise | in the most human and unassuming of eyes.” The everyday was deified, and each flawed human being among us was as heroic as if having just emerged from the mythical realm. Postponing the performance for a genial tribute to our gathering together for the experience, this rhapsodic witch-doctor insisted that listeners were primary in any story-telling episode. Unqualified though I may be to distinguish it, a very possible touch of genius seemed to flicker even in Kate’s opening address. Heart and mind in unison, she was the evening’s epicentre of humanity.
Her ambling prelude gave way to a thunderous opening score from the four-piece band: tuba, drums, and strings collided for a high-octane introduction to Kate’s dramatic poem, and the stunning synthesis of poetry, music, and lighting crackled the atmosphere right up until the standing ovation. Her spoken-word sketch of the cityscape soon focused in on two next-door neighbouring families – a palette of adultery, domestic violence, parental neglect… But what these life-players lacked in the way of home comforts was countered by Kate’s beautifully-sculpted blending of frank, human fragility and a golden aura of divinity.
The flux of the performance never ceased, and Kate had no reservations about splintering the suspension of disbelief at times. As the first kiss between Tommy and Gloria was played out in music, she shrugged and gestured towards her band: “they say it better than I could in words”. Self-deprecation unwarranted, belying her innate lyricism and its oft-poignant potential. A wry smile on my part was prompted by the line “she couldn’t make out the grain of their wood through the layers of varnish” in its evocation of Oxford hacks. Beware, Kate Tempest is onto your polished personae.
Her magnetism rendered this performance inimitable, and while Kate’s small-world superheroes were far from moral role models, they were given a worthwhile ‘ordinary made extraordinary’ rostra through her intoxicating incantations. As she observed, “in all our fury and foulness and friction, | everyday odysseys, dreams and decision… | The stories are there if you listen.” But for these eighty minutes, there is no if – Kate compels us to hear and respond to every syllable, and I defy anyone to resent it.
Kate Tempest and Battersea Arts Centre are touring Brand New Ancients until April 2014, landing in Oxford’s North Wall from 25-6 February. Book now!