Written in partnership with Battersea Arts Centre, ‘Brand New Ancients’ constitutes a parable of mythical proportions. Kate Tempest’s profile has exploded in recent times, recruiting admirers around the country and last night saw the fiery linguist return to Bristol with her award-winning production.
Approaching the Bristol Old Vic theatre, an extensive queue curled its way across the cobbled stones as people impatiently shuffled inside, eager to see the humble poet’s first feature-length, solo theatre piece. Co-commissioned by the Albany, the show has recently won the esteemed Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for its lucid depiction of 21st century life.
Staged as part of Bristol Old Vic’s current Mayfest programme, this epic tale, steeped in Greek mythology, is a completely different beast to Tempest’s regular spoken-word gigs. With the production scale amped up in every respect, Brand New Ancients was a chance for this gifted raconteur to spread her creative wings. Accompanied by a quartet of talented musicians (Kwake Bass on percussion, Jo Gibson on tuba, Natasha Zielazinski on cello and Raven Bush on violin), Tempest transfixed the full house for eighty minutes using little more than the power of spoken word. This impressive achievement was enabled by the intense passion that emanated from every line of this expansive poem. Fluctuating between a range of confident styles that showcased her striking ability to manipulate language, Tempest carved out an immersive storyline that had eyes and ears from all three levels of the theatre captivated from beginning to end.
Centred on the dysfunctional and explicitly real lives of two neighbouring London families, we see their existence plucked apart and in their failings we see elements of our own existence. From adulterous spouses to tragic friendships and snapshots of ill-fated love, the character’s lives are intricately woven together with many volatile clashes occurring along the way. The power of Brand New Ancients is that Tempest’s writing is so genuine and relatable that by the end, each and every audience member will no doubt have connected with elements of the multi-layered narrative. The sheer strength that Tempest exudes as a performer is mesmerising, pulling the entranced audience further and further into intricately detailed scenes, rich with charming observations that add depth to the dark world she has created for her tragic characters. Clawing at her arms and body, eloquent and mellifluous couplets were pulled out and blown into the air, their meaning reinforced by the guttural bass rumblings of the quartet that played in the background.
Employing mythical language, Homeric fables were transplanted into the present day with characters aligned to ’everyday gods’ that stood proud despite their various shortcomings. Clever lighting design from Matt O’Leary framed the stage while atmospheric smoke drifted across the murky south London locations that Tempest painted with words. Deftly flicking between scenes as if skipping between the chapters of a book, the whole play felt like reading an engrossing novel that demands attention, with each audience member rustling through the pages to reach its breathtaking conclusion.
Celebrating everyday life, without the glitz and glamour that ‘false idols’ would have us strive towards, Tempest’s tempestuous tale was broken up with a series of bass-heavy rap interludes that promoted reflection. Aside from breaking up the intensity of the story itself, these connecting sections allowed the poet to drive home the message of the play as a whole - namely, that the mundane, routine and ordinary nature of most people’s lives should be celebrated rather than condemned, kindness and compassion are critical to living a happy existence and that we should all be proud of who we are. Rousing an emotional standing ovation, Brand New Ancients serves as a life-affirming and incredibly moving slice of theatre whose message will no doubt resonate long after the curtain has fallen.