Originally written for Exeunt.
When Kate Tempest takes to the stage to perform Brand New Ancients, audiences are offered a transformation. As she smiles a few words of welcome, the poet and performer is charmingly awkward, shy even. But from the moment she launches herself headfirst into her narrative, she is suddenly electric. Tempest is a shape-shifter; a small, unassuming figure in jeans and T-shirt, capable of making the air crackle. Ordinary and extraordinary all at once – just like the characters whose stories she so compassionately tells.
Brand New Ancients is all about looking at people differently. Shifting the focus of mythical narratives from unreachable gods in the sky to the ordinary individuals we walk past every day, Tempest asks her audience to see “real heroes in really normal people”. Her gods are at the bar and in the betting shop, smoking a fag in the street or eating a kebab after a night out. Fighting the false idols of manufactured fame and fleeting celebrity, Tempest argues that everyone is worth our attention.
“This thing about noticing people …” Tempest trails off during our phone conversation, pausing in search of the right words. “You walk around among people all the time without really noticing that they’re other human beings. It blows my head off every time I go anywhere; just looking at people, taking a minute to slow down a bit.”
In keeping with this focus on people, Tempest explains that it was the characters in Brand New Ancients who came to her first, with the form of the piece following as she wrote it. “I’m quite used to thinking about what it is now as a finished piece, but right back at the beginning I don’t think I quite had a handle on knowing what I wanted it to be,” she says. “I just had all these loose narrative threads about these characters.”
These threads eventually became the interweaved stories of two families, whose tale Tempest tells through a fusion of storytelling, poetry and rap. She explains that the finished piece was unlike anything she had done before and is in some ways her most ambitious show to date, featuring the longest sustained narrative and mixing a wide range of artistic influences. In a masterstroke, Tempest’s captivating performance is also accompanied by a soaring live score composed by Nell Catchpole, allowing wordless pauses for “your brain to recover from that onslaught and let the music do the talking”.
Given all these different, overlapping elements to her work, it is almost impossible to pin Tempest down to one genre. While the poetry world has recognised Brand New Ancients with the Ted Hughes Award, the inclusion of the show in the Traverse Theatre’s programme during the Edinburgh Fringe – where it is appearing as part of the British Council Showcase – would also seem to cement Tempest’s association with theatre. It was only last year that Tempest wrote her first play, Wasted, at the same time as continuing to make work by herself and with her band Sound of Rum. Speaking about her experimentation with different art forms, Tempest explains, “I’m now starting to have an idea and be able to choose whether that idea is a story or a play or a rap or a novel.”
The thought of not having a stab at new genres when the opportunity arises seems to be one that has not occurred to Tempest. And when it comes to the risk of failure, her attitude is remarkably relaxed. “Until you’ve got something really wrong you can’t get anything really right,” she reasons. “You’re not quite engaging with the decisions you make unless you’ve made a really bad one.” There’s also a steely streak of determination to Tempest’s character and a formidable work ethic beneath her laid-back persona. She’s particularly emphatic about the need to be constantly moving out of her comfort zone: “Push yourself, do something that’s hard work, do something you’re petrified of.”
It’s certainly a mantra that Tempest has lived by in recent years. As well as continuing to write for theatre, she tells me that she has just finished the first draft of a novel, at the same time as making a new record. And her latest project, from which she is taking a break when we chat, is a musical. Even Tempest sounds a little surprised about that one. “It’s very different,” she says, quickly adding, “and hopefully not shit. That’s all we can ask of any of it – please don’t let this be the thing that’s shit.”
For all the variety in her work, however, Tempest is dismissive of the idea that she might be innovating or crossing boundaries. “It is what it is because it’s what I’ve been doing,” she says simply. “I’ve read novels all my life and I’ve listened to rap music all my life and I love being told stories and I love the people in the place that I’m from, so it’s just very natural; of course it happens like this.”
At the heart of it all is an overwhelming love for stories. Tempest talks with enthusiasm about discovering her characters, about the stories that she and her family and friends are always telling one another, and about her recent trip to a writers’ festival in Sydney, where she met fellow writer and “the most amazing storyteller” Daniel Morden. “There’s just something that I react to, which is the narrator,” she attempts to explain her belief in the power of storytelling. “It’s comforting and it’s like the ultimate form of trust; trusting somebody that they’re not going to lie to you.”
“Here’s a story that Daniel Morden told me, right,” Tempest suddenly bursts out excitedly, abandoning the point she is halfway through making. She recalls a simple but beautifully told narrative about a visit that Truth pays to a town where no one will listen to him. After a few days, Tempest continues, a stranger arrives dressed in extravagant clothes and the townspeople all gather round him to hear what he has to say. When Truth asks the stranger what his secret is, he replies that he is clothed in stories, because “the naked truth is too much for people to bear”.
Falling into her distinctive rhythm, Tempest concludes: “So from that time to this, Truth has gone around dressed in the clothes of stories, and it’s easier for people to hear about themselves.” It feels like a fitting philosophy for the invention, enthusiasm and compassion of Tempest’s work. In the end, it’s all just stories.
Photo: Katherine Leedale.