Brand New Ancients at Battersea Arts Centre
Following her massively successful book launch in the massive Old Vic, now Kate Tempest has a play out too. Written across a year at Battersea Arts Centre with regular, public, work-in-progress rehearsals, Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients is a good argument for giving artists time, space, support and money and letting them produce something innovative.
The play opens with Kate lying motionless on the stacked blocks of a simple stage set, legs stretched out (wearing odd socks) as if in a trance in her room at home. Behind her a band of drums, cello, violin and tuba play a city-traffic-dreamscape that is the prologue for this urban tale.
The idea of the Brand New Ancients concept is that we are all gods, heroes, giants, villains – at times all of them. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, the artist creates modern myths in old frameworks. Like Dizraeli with his idea of ‘small gods’, there are no idols, queens or kings when all people are little gods themselves. As the ‘ancients’ created myth to understand and explain the world, so should we too make our symbols and stories from a “brand new mythic pallet”.
Kate’s pallet is, as always, the city and its people. Like Brian Jones’s Family Album, it tells the tale of different generations in the same area, from multiple perspectives and with telling juxtaposition. It is enough, on a minimalist stage set and with an (acting) cast of just one, for Kate simply to move to another area of the stage, to change microphone, and for the lights or music to change to give us a new character or new setting.
So is it a play? It seemed that, talking to people afterwards, that the audience were not quite sure and excited by that fact too. Is it monologue theatre, live rap music or performance poetry? Its strength is that Kate is radically uninterested in genre. It is, at times, all of them. It is told with the power to lose us in the story while keeping the stage free of its fourth wall. Kate remains a poet talking to an audience, not afraid occasionally to break out of story-telling and to talk to us: to deliberately unsuspend our disbelief. It has narrative, message, word play, rap flow and fat beats too from a very talented set of musicians.
If ‘spoken word theatre’ is to be anything, poets who are commissioned for the stage must not simply fall into line, pack up their own identity and put on the uniform of theatre. Bigger venues and theatres take notice of spoken word now, not because we are likely to be any better at writing plays than playwrights are but because we make use of similar abstraction, wonder, love of language, narrative and meaning in ways that are different to, and attract different kinds of audiences, to those of theatre.
Kate has not lost her identity by transferring to theatre’s stage. There is the usual epic tell-it-as-it-is, grab-you-in-your-guts rap-poetry message. It is a full expression of her contempt or impatience with the mundane and the inane (the unexpected appearance of Simon Cowell as mythic-monster-Godhead allows her to vent her satire), and as always that impatience is driven by her passionate belief in human potential. Her poetry always makes you feel like you should do better.
There are few better at telling love. She has understood both how ridiculous and how sublime we are in love and so there is in BNA, as in all her love poetry, an interplay of the comic and the cosmic that laughs at our pretentions while also loving us for them.
She has also added to this with some brilliant storytelling. The narrative of Clive and Terry (aka Spider) in particular seems to me to be new ground for her, yet again excellently covered. We see a damaged boy make friends with a boy whom he will bring down. The care, the trust, the love and the lack of understanding are beautifully portrayed in story form, from the first football game to the moment when Clive sets fire to his friend’s house with his friend inside. We can feel the fierce jealousy of what the other has not, the disgust with what he himself hasn’t and, frighteningly, we can hear the dangerous, twisted tongue of the boy who needs love but knows only power.
In the hands of a lesser poet, Clive kills Terry and we end it there. Kate is too clever for the overblown emotional slam-poem ending. Similarly, her other subplots have worked out more complicated twists from the year of trial and error and public feedback. The character of the creative, talented artist is also vain and conceited. The damsel in distress faces down danger herself without a prince to rescue her.
It is great storytelling. She can also offer us morals and explanation in multi-rhyme hiphop bars. And that works too. The beauty is the way she makes use of what she developed herself on the unfunded, small, spoken-word stages: from listening and performing hiphop, from reading poetry and the pressures of live poetry performance – with the new crafts appropriate to a theatre show.
If there are flaws – perhaps certain plot twists seem contrived, perhaps some strands are not as worked out as they might be, occasionally the narrative is lost a little amidst the scene changes and dramatic shifts in perspective – it is more from the size of the ambition rather than the lack of it. In contrast to the pithy, self-help rubbish pinged back and forth across Twitter or Facebook, Kate is not interested in self-centred, individualist ideas of ‘living in the present’ or ‘living for yourself’. She makes us see eternity. The modern idea that “now is all there is, is a sorry plight”. She is creating a new mythology, a new set of stories out of modern life that encourage us, in a direct and important way, to be better.
Brand New Ancients is at Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 5TN until 22nd September. Tickets cost £12 / 8 concessions from www.bac.org.uk