Kate Tempest at the Old Vic Theatre
“Why is it?”, asks poet and playwright Kate Tempest, “that slam poetry and hip-hop receive such a cool response from the elite literary circles when as much thought, work and knowledge has gone into it?” Why indeed.
On the 23rd of August, the Old Vic played host to a series of slam poets and hip-hop artists, who decried societal evils and personal woes amongst the stucco and bronzed lighting illuminating the 200-year-old theatre.
Beginning with some post-modern violin and drum music from the Speakers Corner Quartet (or in this instance, duo), the two lively presenters, Polarbear and John Berkavitch made a warm welcoming with a particular message: this was no gig, they said, this was a meeting between friends: a political and personal forum. Having said this, they settled comfortably into an attractive lounge chair and sofa which lay on stage right, and there giddily applauded each of the poets as they performed.
The first poet was Zia Armed who spun home-truths about some of life’s bleak prospects and the painfully irrelevant clichés he’d heard; “Homemade lemonade isn’t profitable” he tells us “especially the metaphorical kind”. Next came Holly McNish – her first piece, Wow, was an exploration of self-love devolving into self-hate as we age, and was endearingly and forcefully delivered. DILF attracted a lot of laughs and she ended with an aggressive attack on xenophobia. Both acts made humour a main feature of their works, which was absolutely refreshing.
Spoken word poets gave way to the hip hop artists Chester P., Jam Baxter and David J. Chester. Chester P. was forceful, arousing the crowd, but perhaps his work was mostly political polemic, and not mostly of generic stock. Jam Baxter was more lyrical, but the words were difficult to make out, though the emotion, mostly of derision, was present. Before the interval came the eclectically talented David J., who told stories with interesting vocal agility.
After the interval came a story from our former presenter, John Berkavitch, humorously delivered, about a man who, believing he was going to die, swore an oath to live his life out to the full, but when the news was found to be false, his oath too seemed to be less genuine: he went back to a life of getting “on with it” . The point of this story was more or less lost at the finale, it seemed almost deliberately.
Our other erstwhile presenter, Polarbear, recited rhythmic stories of his childhood, romantic life and the golden moments of fatherhood (his son wishes to learn the trade as well). He is perhaps sentimental in places but does come out with some incredible lines: “our rubbish dump seagulls never saw the sea”, and produces an excitable, humble demeanor.
Finally: Kate. In theory, it is difficult to review a genre which intentionally denies criticism: these artists say that we are who we are, that our thoughts and feelings can be expressed however we like, and it is art, profound or not. Ironically, Kate Tempest blows such ideals out of the water. Her words, talent and insight shine out, enthralling and enlightening the crowd. Especially delightful was her slam rendition of lines from Shakespeare’s Tempest, her own work, Icarus (see the video below), and finally, her manner, which was humble and joyful at all times.
She is acutely aware of the general opinion of spoken word, slam poetry and hip-hop, which many consider sub-intellectual, despite powerful poets like herself. But she takes it in her stride, and pokes fun at the general perception of what is and isn’t art: having mumbled many sentiments during which, perhaps, the crowd glazed slightly: she apologises, saying she meant to be “erudite”, and tells us “it makes it alright because I said erudite”.
Kate’s next gig, “Brand New Ancients”, is on at the Battersea Arts Centre. The show runs from the 30th of August until the 23rd of September. For more information, click here.
Listen to Kate’s poem, Icarus