“We are still mythical,” Kate Tempest persuasively tells us, looking around with wide eyes at the crowded space of the Council Chamber at Battersea Arts Centre – historically the most un-mythical of places. Her new show, taking as its basis the ancient use of mythology as humankind’s way of explaining itself, attempts to convince us that the gods are really everywhere; on park benches smoking fags, at the bar pulling pints, in the room around us. All of us have the ability to be mythic heroes.
This clash of the old and the new, of the exalted language of the gods and the lyrical banalities of the modern high street, feels perfectly at home among the gently crumbling architecture and faded charm of BAC. An unexceptional figure in jeans, T-shirt and plimsolls, Tempest commands this space, striking a startling stance between declamatory power and guileless warmth as she paces the stage with her microphone while the air around her crackles.
Part electric spoken word performance and part gentle storytelling, Tempest intricately weaves together the tale of two families, ordinary and alike in their everyday miseries. For her contemporary Oedipuses and Medeas there are marriages and affairs, betrayals and violence, all equally related with a compassionate lack of condemnation. The bond of friendship between two young men demonstrates the capacity for love even when surrounded by abuse and rage, while another boy escapes the dull reality of his life by sketching comic book epics, vivid sagas of those modern day gods known as superheroes. Tempest’s characters struggle and love and hate and regret, all to the evocatively pulsing soundtrack of Nell Catchpole and Kwake Bass’ live score.
Tempest’s style of delivery marries poetry, song, hip-hop, oratory and – ironically appropriate amidst all this talk of gods – something of the preacher. Fittingly both heavenly and earthy at once, she slides from close-eyed, lilting lyricism to bare, stripped down direct address, stepping out of her performative self to offer artless confidences. At odd moments, usually in the wake of a particularly crude observation, she shrugs, as if by way of charming apology for what she has created.
There are undisguised slip-ups in the performance; Tempest mixes up the names of two of her characters, correcting herself with a laughed explanation, before later tripping on one of the wires snaking across the stage. The lack of polish, far from distracting, makes for something much more vital and – crucially for Tempest’s purposes – much more human. We’re all flawed, she seems to be saying without apology, and that’s OK. While in one sense taking up the mantle of tradition and, like many poets before her, adopting the role of chronicling heroes, there are no pretences of poetic perfection here.
For all this easy charm, underneath the fizzing performance and beaming wit there is something urgently furious at the heart of Tempest’s plea for the value of humanity. Between the houses and parks and pubs, Tempest’s vivid brushstrokes capture a world in which “everything’s weighed on the scales of profit” and we fall on our knees before the false idols of fame, Saturday night entertainment and Simon Cowell, that modern day serpent in the grass. In this fame-seduced world, the television recurs as a symbol of loneliness, a poor but addictive substitute for the company of others.
In pleading her case for the gods and heroes all around us, Tempest is arguing for an appreciation of others that does not hinge on money or fame, but a recognition of the capability for love – as much as the vulnerability to hate – that exists in all of us. We might be flawed, but we are still mythical. And these stories that Tempest is telling us, with raw and captivating power, are the new parables.
Brand New Ancients runs at BAC until 22nd September.