The Front Lawns at the Diggi Palace erupted into deafening applause with the audience giving British performance poet-artist Kate Tempest a standing ovation. During her hour-long performance, the sheer power of Tempest’s poetry transformed the stage into a southeast London street after dark.
Her latest album Let Them Eat Chaos (2016), which Tempest performed at JLF 2017, follows the tortured lives of seven Londoners on a stormy night at a single moment (4.18am) as they struggle with their personal demons and the sterility and loneliness of urban existence. There’s Jenna, haunted by the ghosts of her past; Esther, the exhausted carer, who worries all the time; Alisha, grieving for her dead husband; Pete, poor, wasted, staggering home; Bradley, who has a good job but “can’t shake off the feeling that life hasn’t started”; Zoey, moving out of her home because she cannot afford the rising rent; and Pius, picking up random strangers at a pub to drive away the thoughts of her dead daughter.
The narratives of urban alienation are set against larger issues that plague the modern world: immigration, climate change, economic inequality, violence, armed conflicts, and the narcissistic bubble/ennui in which people choose to live.
Europe, America lost
London is lost
And we still clamour victory
All that means nothing rules
We have learnt nothing from history
The stark and the sublime, the personal and political merge in this depiction of modern reality:
Water levels rising
Animals and polar bears are dying
Half the generation lives beneath the breadline
But it is happy hour on some street
It wasn’t just the fierceness of her ideas and the lyricism of her poetry, but also the imagery that made the performance — as Tempest became each character — so riveting. The descriptiveness of her language worked as a camera, taking the listener down the London street as flowers on Jenna’s window sill flutter in the night breeze, a tired Esther, eyes sore, swigs beer and makes a sandwich, and Bradley sits awake watching notches on the clock-face.
As a storm “cracks open the sky in a wide grin” and rain lashes the city, the seven protagonists feel alive momentarily soaked in the rain. The poet’s parting message is to break the “myth of individuality” that has disconnected us and “wake up and love more”.
The appreciative audience was quick with questions and in response Tempest said her writing process keeps changing. She said if a work moves you, it is meant for you. “We’re trying to fill the void inside. All of us search for it till we find something timeless and feel connected to that.”
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