By Danielle Farrow
In Brand New Ancients, Kate Tempest shows a keen ear for rhythm, eye for observation, tongue for communication, mind for description, and heart for humanity. The sheer potential of people is magnificently explored, with pain, banality, joy, hope, fear, expectations, pressures, achievements and successes, and all is offered within a piquant narrative, sometimes vocal alone and at other times full of musical conjurations, with and without Tempest’s clear voice.
This epic poem, looking at two neighbouring families over two generations, tells of the kind of relationships, longings and strivings that can be found in soaps on television, yet relates them as if they are myths from the ancients. It shows how ‘the gods are in us’, how our struggles, failures and successes are worthy of legend, and offers some understanding of wisdom through generations, of real connection if we don’t lose our histories and ourselves.
Tempest herself is a surprisingly young figure against a backdrop of rostra that provide for her band (Jo Gibson on tuba, Kwake Bass and Preetha Narayanan on percussion and electronics, Tara Franks on cello and Raven Bush on violin), lit from above and the sides, often as if this band and artists play in the light of the gods themselves / bring that light into being, even as the music conjures mystic power with an urban edge. It is clear that all are very much in sync throughout, with some of the musicians having collaborated with composer Nell Catchpole.
On this particular evening, the piece was extended at the start by Tempest voicing her thoughts about being in Edinburgh at the time of the festivals, thoughts of what the audience means to any performance, again reflecting her belief that people are special and people connecting is where true and humane power lies. Despite this over-running, there was nothing but praise to be heard after the standing ovation, along with an audience member’s suggestion that ‘this is the future’.
The phrasings of Brand New Ancients, with driving rhythms that keep forward momentum – even when a section steps out of the main story to provide wider social context – are brilliant in aptness and description, with so many lines grabbing brain and guts at the same time. As the grown son of one family loses his way among superficial success, his woman is uneasy about his flash companions, for ‘she couldn’t make out the grain of their wood through the layers of varnish’. Such a simple concept, so clear, is just one tiny, quiet example of the poet’s spot-on observation and expression.
Tempest’s epic, a co-production with Battersea Arts Centre co-commissioned by the Albany, dives into mortal lives breathing immortality into them, on streets and beaches, in homes, bars and offices. Here is a rap / poem / story that both worms and bursts its way into minds and souls, all rooted in the here and now, in real people with real problems, doing what they can: ‘you, me, everyone: Brand New Ancients’.