In recent months, I've been going on something of a spoken word kick. It's an exciting time for spoken word aficionados right now as more and more nights pop up in and around the capital, as well as further afield, yet the bar has remained consistently high - at least in my experience. Therefore it seemed only appropriate that I jump at the opportunity to catch Kate Tempest's first performance in 2014 of Brand New Ancients at The Young Vic. As the winner of the Ted Hughes award in 2013, Tempest is universally adored by critics and audiences alike, so it's fair to say that my expectations were incredibly high.
Tempest shuffles onto the stage with a kind of affable apprehension and informally introduces us all to the show, keen to emphasise that the typical barriers between performer and audience don't apply here. She seeks to put the crowd at ease and perhaps herself as well, before launching into the performance. Broadly speaking, the show centres on a theme of everyday gods and how we are all gods with the ability to have a profound effect on the lives of the other gods around us, whether this is conscious or not. This is a story steeped in the everyday that we all recognise but with the grandeur of the Greek gods.
The narrative involves two South London families and recounts how each son's troubled upbringing sends them down very different but intertwining paths. It could be easy for this to turn into a vaguely condescending portrayal of her subjects, but such is the sensitivity of Tempest's words that they're always treated with compassion and respect. It feels like a redundant thing to say about a poet, but Tempest has a beautiful way with words. And, if the hallmark of any truly engaging stage presence is the mix between defiance and an underlying fragility, then Tempest is as an a engrossing presence as you're ever likely to see.
Tempest's band were particularly effective at creating an atmospheric spectacle and ensuring that theatrical elements weren't neglected as can often be the case in a spoken word performance. The combination of cello, violin and drums adds a pulsating tension to the performance as the action see-saws from poetry to rap. And it's this segueing back and forth combined with Neil Catchpole's unsettling and, at times, ethereal score, that ensures that Brand New Ancients doesn't fall into the potential trap of losing the audience by focusing on the words alone; even if the words are as eloquent and gorgeous as Tempest's.
Tempest finds time to launch an angry broadside at popular culture staples such as The X Factor, but she ensures that they don't slip into becoming too preachy or contrite, when she half-jokingly realises her complicity in it all. Although her vitriol at the culture of seeking fame as a short-cut to happiness is certainly on point, it feels like well-trodden ground by now. Nonetheless, it's a remarkable achievement that considering the subject matter, Tempest never patronises or attempts to spoon-feed her audience any kind of manufactured sentiment. Rather, each eloquent line leaves you feeling affected and moved by its genuine sincerity. I've touched upon this before, but it is this consistent need and desire for spoken word to be something real that puts this art form head and shoulders above so many other performance arts.
There's the odd inclination when visiting a show that has been met with a unanimously positive reception to try to find the negative aspects but, when confronted with such a profoundly compassionate piece, resistance is futile. Considering some of the subject matter, Brand New Ancients remains consistently optimistic and refrains from becoming a lachrymose ballad for the disenchanted, but rather is a celebration of humanity. Tempest has succeeded in creating something that contains enough self awareness, realism and sincerity to make it an incredibly effective piece of work. If the goal of storytelling is to say something that resonates and sticks with your audience for a while afterwards, then Brand New Ancients achieves this emphatically.