It’s not hard to be cynical. We all do it once in a while - take the mick, doubt someone’s motives, forget to give other people a chance. It’s much easier than being generous, seeing people’s dignity. That’s what makes Brand New Ancients so extraordinary. It’s a show than re-invests all your faith in humanity and somehow manages to do this without seeming insincere or didactic. Even its comedy is comes from the fact that so much of what happens is instantly recognisable, sympathetic: it never mocks or belittles its characters. You leave feeling unpatronised and unpreached to, but still, somehow, more impressed by humanity.
Kate Tempest, the performer, is remarkable. She’s an engaging, unpretentious figure, introducing herself before beginning her poem, telling the audience she wants this to be a friendly space where no-one’s going to give someone the evils for coughing. She only gets more impressive once the performance starts, almost dancing to her words: rhythmic, expressive, emphatic. She’s not too self-involved, though, and knows when to address the audience with a joke, when to acknowledge the laughter with a nod of the head.
Tempest’s poem tells of ordinary intertangled London lives, but presented with the dignity usually reserved for the heroes of classical epic. It more than works - it’s gripping. As the denouement approaches, you’re on the edge of your seat, panicked, feeling the sharpness of the danger the characters are in. A score has been composed for the poem and is performed by five talented musicians, yet sometimes it feels almost like an interruption - when the poetry’s this good, you don’t want anything to stop it.
While introducing herself, Tempest points out (even as she worries it sounds too ‘Oscars acceptance’) that last summer she was performing the same poem unaccompanied to a far smaller audience at Summerhall. Considering the quality of her work, it’s hardly surprising she’s come so far in a year. Catch her while you still can.