Spoken-word artist Kate Tempest took a seat on stage and watched the band behind her raise a ruckus–loud and fiery. It pleased her. A beaming smile filled her cherubic face, as the drummer, Kwake Bass, beat the skins so hard that equipment started to fall over on stage. By the end of the night I’d realize tearing down a theater is only apropos for Tempest and her genre-bending show Brand New Ancients.
Tempest started humbly, thanking the audience for coming. And then she opened the story, and I stopped breathing. This is epic poetry redefined—modern, relevant, and raw. Rap-style storytelling and quartet music might seem like the unlikeliest of bedfellows but Tempest and the band make it the perfect marriage of story, beats, and heart. With intricate turns of phrase, colloquial authenticity, and a musical backdrop that makes you want to weep, it was by far the best thing I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year.
I mean, everyone else just quit now. Kate Tempest is here and she’s got stories to tell.
Written and performed by Tempest, music composed by Nell Catchpole in collaboration with Kwake Bass, Jo Gibson, Natasha Zielazinski and Raven Bush, Brand New Ancients is both a world of ordinary people and world still full of gods, heroes, and monsters where myth and legend are real. “Millions of characters each with their own epic narratives singing ‘it’s hard to be an angel until you’ve been a demon.'” Tempest conjures a world where people are just trying to get by in life, when there are no opportunities and even less hope:
The gods are in the betting shops
the gods are in the caff
the gods are smoking fags out the back
the gods are in the office blocks
the gods are at their desks
the gods are giving more, but getting less
the gods are at the rave—two pills deep into dancing—
the gods are in the alleyway laughing
the gods are at the doctor’s
they need a little something for the stress
the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex
the gods are in the supermarket
the gods are walking home,
the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phones
the gods are in a traffic jam
the gods are on the train
the gods are watching adverts
the gods are not to blame
Like any epic poem, Tempest establishes the world she is speaking about and then tells tales of love, lust, violence, and pain. Her story begins with Jane and Kevin, whose marriage has gone cold. They are neighbors with Mary and Brian. Mary’s “sick of his lies and he’s sick of her crying.” Mary and Brian fight all the time and their son Clive “soaks it up with wide eyes.” Jane and Brian begin an affair which begets Tommy. And our narrative follows Tommy and Clive as they grow into men. Tommy is an artist. Clive is a troublemaker. Her verbal character portraits are so complete that you can picture the look of defeat on Kevin’s face and the lust in Brian’s eyes, feel the need in Jane’s heart and the anger in Clive’s soul.
Tempest was acutely aware of the audience and self-conscious at times. When her rhymes bordered on the cute or punny, she’d give an apologetic and knowing head tilt and hand gesture. Sort of saying, “I know. I know it’s bordering on corny. But don’t worry, mate, I’m going to still break your heart.” And it’s true.
Watching her speak these lines, which I am sure she has done thousands of times before, everything felt honest and raw. At times clutching her body as she spoke, you felt as if this story was not an artistic endeavor, but something gnawing at her insides that had to come out.
But Brand New Ancients is not just good storytelling—the union of the words, rhythm, delivery, and music elevates the entire piece to a whole new level, and with it Kate Tempest creates an art form you didn’t know you needed to see. Oh, but you do. You do.