Kate Tempest, a 30 year old dramatist and poet, has an appeal that’s hard to fathom. Is it all in the elbows? Like most performers raised on hip hop, she recites with her upper limbs flapping and wiggling as if by remote control. For emphasis she uses that impatient downward flicking gesture, beloved of rappers, like a countess at a buffet ridding her fingers of unwanted guacamole.
Few would describe the south Londoner’s poetry as ‘moreish’. Less ish, perhaps. She sates the ear too rapidly because her technique has an obvious and easily corrected fault: no variety. Tempo and mood never change, so she can’t create expectation, uncertainty, surprise or relief. Every line sounds like its predecessor, half sung on a falling note, and every word seems to exult in its contact with the dolorous and moribund. Here’s a snippet from ‘My Shakespeare’, which the RSC, along with BP, commissioned from her in 2012. Tempest delivers the poem in her habitual tone of querulous anger:
He’s less the tights and garters
More the sons demanding answers
From the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of a doomed embrace.
Metrical rigour and adroit rhyming are not yet among her accomplishments. She has a pretty, cherubic face, framed by unbrushed red blonde hair and she speaks in a Caribbean lite patois that translates ‘those things’ into ‘dem fings’. This linguistic pattern has many fans among the elite. It’s seen as an emblem of barbarous innocence, of instinctive passions bred in the ghetto, of an unschooled and therefore superior creativity. And it particularly excites Arts Council grandees who believe their mission is to reach down to the uncivilised and protean human type. Which Tempest perfectly represents.
She is also, like many a timid and parochial spirit, pessimistic to the point of superstition. She sees malevolence everywhere. Even in Brighton, where next year she will serve as the festival’s ‘guest director’. To mark her appointment she analysed the present epoch with damning fatalism. ‘The fear spreading everywhere and the divisions between us deepening daily.’ The cure for fear and division is to attend a gig, she suggests, although perhaps not one of hers.
She’s drawn to ancient mythology and her appetite expresses itself, characteristically one might say, in terms of distaste and pain. She finds herself ‘arguing’ for what she calls ‘a new mythology’. ‘We’ve lost our connection to mythology. I find that kind of troubling.’ Hardly troubling. Hardly true either. The archetypes of Greek folklore are all around us. The narcissistic, man bewitching Kim Kardashian is our Helen of Troy. All conquering Zeus and his irascible wife Hera, co governors of Mount Olympus, have their counterparts in Brad and Angelina. Any premiership love rat could be the philandering warrior, Paris, who prefers the couch of love to the call of duty. Hephaestus, the crippled wizard, is Stephen Hawking. And Artemis, the sexless huntress worshipped from afar by impotent men, sounds like the new prime minister. But no one could accuse Tempest of suffering from a lack of ambition. And her desire to create a new mythology and to delight us with its wonders can speak for itself. Here’s a couplet from her poem, ‘Icarus’.
Foolish young pride, silly man cub
How can you learn to fly if you ain’t even learned to stand up?