Performance review: Kae Tempest, Perth Festival

Storytelling, song, poetry –Tempest defies categories.

When Kae Tempest takes to the stage they are framed by the image of a tall, leafless tree behind, and a spotlight in front. ‘My hope is that you are going to walk off with your spirits lifted,’ Tempest says, speaking with the same eye contact you would expect from a lover, as if each word is a personalised gift to the people standing before them.

Tempest performs their new album, The Line is a Curve, with a mirroring duality – everyday English culture slides alongside poignant spiritual concepts, and Tempest’s movements on stage bring the same disregard to classification. At times, punching out lines from their chest and taking up space on the stage, a beat later, shaping their body into a slow curve of reverence with a stretched neck and upward gaze, as if willing the sun to break through the roof.

In this new album, Tempest stays true to their lyrical signature, exploring what it means to be alive. The work moves through loss and regret, to triumph and hope and back again. There are moments when these themes are brought to life in the micro – smoking backstage at a festival, in a bar or walking down a suburban street. Then they pan out to the macro, taking us to the edges of nostalgia or a long-philosophised belief. These changes give Tempest’s storytelling a cinematic feeling as if we’re on a pilgrimage together.

The way that Tempest uses their body throughout the performance adds layers of meaning to the album that you wouldn’t grasp if experienced in audio only. Their shoulder blades fold into a depressive isolation. Arms are then butterflied open as though presenting a surrendered symbol of crucifixion. Whether crouching, stretching or folding, their body becomes an instrument.

Part slam poetry, part rap, part lyrical monologue – Tempest doesn’t seem to care to define. The words live beyond any one category and, as each piece seeps into the next without borders, Tempest seems to move us spectators closer to one other.

With their final act, ‘Hold Your Own’, the audience’s faces aren’t backlit by phones desperate to capture the closing song; we are holding our foreheads, wiping tears and kissing the cheeks of those we came with. Four generations deep, this audience is equally moved into a rare union. You could imagine it would be impossible to be angry at the post-gig traffic, or your favourite dumpling house that has closed early that night. We have been given a renewed sense of aliveness, in all its embroidered tapestry.

Read: Theatre review: Nosferatu, Malthouse

That was the truth of it all. Tempest has created the kind of art that breaks you apart and leaves you to put yourself back together because you’re stronger now. They made you that way – in an hour and a half. And there’s still time.

Kae Tempest
The Rechabite, WA

Kae Tempest performed on 15 February as part of the Perth Festival. They will be touring to the Forum, Melbourne on 22 February 2023.

Clare Reid is an author and feature writer based in Perth. Long-listed for the Fish Anthology short story prize and, with published work in The Nasiona and Change Seven Magazine, Clare is just beginning her career as an author. She is a senior copywriter and holds a MA in Transnational Creative Writing from Stockholm University.