As her new solo play Brand New Ancients gets underway at the BAC, we speak to Kate Tempest, Britain's leading young poet, playwright and rapper about growing up, being a 'female MC' and moving on to a new kind of politics...
About seven years ago I sat in the comedy tent at Leeds festival waiting to see the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, when a short, young-looking blonde girl in baggy jeans and a scruffy jumper came on stage and introduced herself as a poet called Kate Tempest.
You could feel a collective groan ripple through an audience expecting a man in leather trousers and some rock and roll wit. “Who the hell does this girl think she is?” one guy in front of me said before she’d even reached the mic.
In the next moment, she'd jumped off the stage, leant over the railings and launched into Icarus (below) - a modern retelling of the Greek myth half-recited half-rapped in a South London accent.
It was blistering, breath-taking and utterly confusing. How could someone so small, so young, so gentle-looking perform like that? By the end no one was groaning. They were either stunned into silence or adding to the roar of applause.
Sitting on a bench outside the Battersea Arts Centre, the home of her new solo play Brand New Ancients, I remind Kate of the gig.
“Oh my God. We’d driven through the night from the other end of the country. I was in this massive booming tent and no one knew who I was. I have no idea why they booked me and I felt petrified, but I wasn’t going to turn it down – it was supporting John Cooper Clarke.
“I remember thinking that gig was awful. I remember thinking: ‘Oh my god, these poor people are just trying to enjoy an afternoon at a festival and they’re just being shouted at for 20 minutes!’”
Modesty comes naturally to her, but the fact is seeing Kate live for the first time is unforgettable. In London’s friendly but fairly fragmented spoken word scene, everyone has heard of Kate Tempest. She is one of the most widely respected performers in the country – the complete package of lyrics and delivery. She is also one of the most exciting young writers working in Britain today.
Brand New Ancients is an hour and half of storytelling set to a beautiful live score that manages to combine the social realism of Ken Loach with the wit and disarming beauty of Mike Skinner. More than that, it weaves classical mythology into a portrait of modern day Britain to suggest that the epic stories and ancient heroes of the past live on today in us: every day people. It is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating, inspiring pieces of theatre you’ll see this year.
“What ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ means is always shifting,” she tells me over a glass of water and roll up.
“Everyone has within themselves the capacity for great good, and great destructiveness. That’s why I am aligning us with these old Gods. It’s natural to look at someone and make a snap judgement, but the point of the piece is just to say: look again, try and see the possibility of a person.
Tracing the story of two broken families, an extra-marital affair and a pair of brothers who grow up unknown to each other, at its heart, Brave New Ancients is a play about empathy.
We’re encouraged to see some of society's most reviled stereotypes – the spiteful drug addict in a hoody, the absent, alcoholic Father – as human souls, capable of love and loyalty and passion as well as damaging others.
“I don’t know if it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Kate when I ask. “It’s certainly the most adventurous. I’m becoming more interested in character and narrative, leaving it up to the audience a bit more rather than just me screaming: ‘This is what I feel, and I this is what I want you to feel!’”
It’s true, based on her older pieces – eloquent riffs on the state of society delivered with a sometimes evangelical zeal - you might expect Kate to be perpetually pissed off, desperate to win you over to her point of view.
Kate Tempest outside the BAC
Instead she is funny, warm and thoughtful, her pale blue eyes constantly darting around in search of the most honest answer, the point of view she hasn’t considered yet. For someone showered with superlatives from all corners of hip hop and poetry since a young age, there isn’t a trace of arrogance about her – a reminder of the difference between confidence and cockiness that a lot of young rappers (and poets) could do with taking on board.
Confidence, she says, is something that has come from having to spend the past ten years overcoming other people’s doubts about her - just like that gig at Leeds festival.
“The first time I performed was in a small hip hop record shop on Carnaby Street when I was 16. On Fridays they would turn over a crate and have open mic gigs. My friends pushed me to the front of this room packed full of real hardcore rap fans, all these guys with their testosterone... and up I come, looking about eight-years-old in baggy clothes, all ginger hair and glasses and that.
“I did my one little verse and the place just went nuts. When people think you’re going to be shit - and you know they think you’re going to be shit - it makes you so intent on changing their minds. That defined the next three years for me.”
Concerts across Europe, Australia and America with her band Sound Of Rum (above), poetry commissions from the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Barnado’s, acclaimed slots at Glastonbury and victories at New York’s prestigious Nu-Yorican poetry cafe slam all soon followed - as did her first book of poetry, Everything Speaks in its Own Way, and her first play, Wasted.
The youngest of five kids growing in “a shitty part of town, but in a nice house where there was always food”, she says the work ethic that helped drive her success came largely from her Father.
“When I was young my Dad was a labourer. When I got to three, he went to night school and trained for a law degree. By the time I got to eight he had qualified as a criminal lawyer. So I’ve got this born-in thing about working hard.”
Nevertheless, by the time she was a teenager she says was having “the same wayward youth that a lot of kids have when they’re not very happy at school”, at an inner city comprehensive where the teachers “hated intelligent children”. She began to get angry, and directed a lot of that anger into politics and her poems.
“I used to live on a squatted site in a trailer with a bunch of very politically active people, hanging around on picket lines rapping at riot cops,” she says.
“Then I became disillusioned with it. I realised that there is only so far that message of dissent is going to get. A million people turn up and march for the end of a war and fuck all happens. That was a big moment. It was hard after that.
Which isn’t to say Kate has given up on trying to change minds. She says she’s just altered her approach.
“I realised then I was more interested in the human, rather than the politics. I have this idea that if something is going to change, it’s not going to change in government. It’ll change in how we feel about ourselves and our lives and each other.
“Things the government are doing worry me, but I don't think standing up on stage and saying that will make a difference. And I don’t want to not talk to people who support David Cameron. I want to talk to those people. I want to talk to the people who don’t want to listen.”
26 now, in a happy relationship and surrounded by good friends, she worries she’s getting too "comfortable". But walking out of Brave New Ancients, it feels more like Kate’s writing is evolving rather than losing its bite. It’s a story written less with a poet’s tempestuous passion, and more with novelist’s careful sense of craft.
“I’d like to write some more plays, finish the book I am working on, make a record I feel really good about and then get off stage – and shut up!” she jokes when I ask about the future.
“No but - all I know is, I am very much in love with what I do. And I want to get better at it. Fucking hell – I work so hard... every minute of the day... because there is somewhere I am trying to get. Something I want to say. An idea I need to crystallize.
And whatever it is, I just want to do it justice.”
Brand New Ancients is showing at Battersea Arts Centre now until 22 September 2012, £12 (£8 con)