By Richard Donnelly
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Spoken Word: Brand New Ancients

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Issue 386

Kate Tempest’s award-winning and critically acclaimed theatrical spoken-word epic reopened this month and will soon be touring nationwide.

A collection of beautiful and delicately loving stories about the lives of working class people, Brand New Ancients mixes hip hop and high art in a glorious celebration of everyday life.

Tempest’s poetry is an outstanding interweaving of dextrous and powerful verbal depth with a keen attention to the way in which language is actually used.

The descriptions of her characters’ thoughts and feelings are often long and intricate, while their speech is simplistic and truncated, as she plays with the contradiction between the depth of felt experience and the social constraints that hamper personal expression.

This is done with all the intensity, perceptivity and sensitivity of great storytelling. Tempest is a master at working with her live four-piece backing band to create crescendos of overwhelming sound and overpowering emotion that will have many in tears.

Tempest describes herself as a “wayward youth” who spent her formative years living in squats and “hanging around on picket lines rapping at riot cops”.

Involved in the anti-war movement as a teenager, her work is informed by a healthy and understandable distrust of politicians, but she also puts forward a critique of “false idols”, the celebrities and others who set themselves up above ordinary people.

Instead she asks us to look to ourselves as those with valuable lives, as those capable of great things – as the real “gods” or “brand new ancients”.

This isn’t to say she thinks ordinary people are angels. Tempest doesn’t shy away from the tumult, hurt and chaos of ordinary life as she explores marital breakdown and domestic violence, detailing the real and sometimes grimy experience of workers.

But within this crisis, she paints soulful and touching portraits of the solidarity of friendship and the comfort of romance that provide her characters with a heart in a heartless world.

The message is clear from when Tempest first shuffles out on stage, shyly begging the audience for a hearing. It asks us to look beyond the surface and see the miracle of human love in a broken system.

This is a festival of revelry for all of life’s terrible imperfections, all of ordinary existence’s overhanging burdens and the great beauty that is nevertheless expressed through people’s compassion and empathy for one another.

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