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  • Miles Hedley


Considering the country was in deep lockdown only a few weeks ago, it’s amazing that the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival happened at all. What makes this 25th anniversary edition almost miraculous, however, is that the programme was as adventurous and inspiring as ever despite the huge constraints of Covid safety measures.

Late cancellations by two of the star overseas attractions – Belgian theatre company De Roovers and choreographers Requardt & Rosenberg – must have shaken GDIF artistic director Bradley Hemmings and his team. But it’s a tribute to them and to the artists who were able to perform that audiences barely sensed the loss.

Over two glorious weeks, we were treated to dozens of fabulous events ranging from the huge outdoor installations for which GDIF is justly renowned to small-scale community gatherings reflecting the world today through the 2020 festival’s stated aims of being immersive and inclusive and concentrating on key contemporary issues including the climate emergency, front-line heroes of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter.

Audience numbers had to be restricted because of social-distancing regulations but even reduced crowds couldn’t dilute the overwhelming air of joy that is and always has been the hallmark of this remarkable annual extravaganza.

The tone for 2020 was set by Luke Jerram’s deeply moving In Memoriam (top), an installation made of bedsheets commemorating NHS staff and key workers who have risked – and too often lost – their lives caring for victims of Covid 19. Appropriately, it stood on Woolwich Common within sight of Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Booker prizewinning author Bernardine Evaristo wrote a prose-poem about her native Woolwich for the festival. Entitled Weavers Of Woolwich and read by local residents, it paid tribute to the generations of people from around the world who have called this part of south-east London home.

Jerram’s second spectacular contribution to GDIF was the gorgeous Gaia, above, an enormous model of the earth complete with NASA imaging which was suspended among the Baroque splendour of the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. Outside, artist Ray Lee had set up Chorus, a set of revolving arms holding variously tuned speakers with two huge woofers on the ground which combined to form a hypnotically attractive electronic soundscape even on a cold, wet night.

Back in Woolwich, choreographer Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s staged Black Victorians (above) in the atmospheric ruins of St George’s Garrison Church. Using four dancers, some wonderfully colourful crinolines and 30 evocative 19th century photo portraits of black people from a Zulu king to a Glaswegian housewife, Jean-Charles created a powerful reminder of the vital role minority groups played in the rise and rise of the British empire.

Not everything was big, though. On Your Doorstep was a series of performances that took art into the heart of local communities around the borough. For example, I caught Toast – a celebration of stories, music and pancakes by Pif-Paf – at Charlton Park and a week later saw the gravity-defying hoop-spinning circus act Roll Play at Well Hall Pleasaunce. Both of them had previously appeared at GDIF events in other locales.

Similarly, the world-famous jugglers of Gandini showed off their magical skills in both Woolwich and Greenwich, whilst Told By An Idiot’s madcap family show Get Happy wowed audiences in Woolwich, Thamesmead and Eltham.

Dancing City, an afternoon of international choreography around the Canary Wharf estate, saw some of my favourite GDIF moments, including Dandyism - Patrick Ziza’s fabulous tribute to Congolese fashionistas – and the even more sensational Rainbow Ballet by Dulce Compania, who used segues, stilts and ravishing coloured costumes to create a piece of breathtaking grace and skill which for me was the highlight of the entire fortnight. In fact I loved it so much I saw it again a week later when they repeated it at The Tide on the Greenwich Peninsula riverfront (above).

Jerram’s third and final piece in the festival was the community event Lullaby which featured locals on bikes festooned with lights and speakers riding en masse through the streets of Plumstead. At the same time, Ray Lee’s second installation Ring Out created another spellbinding sonic landscape, this time across the river in Silvertown.

The festival ended with two extraordinary events in the Royal Docks. Fire Garden, by Walk The Plank at Thames Barrier Park, enthralled audience members at dusk as Thames Barrier Park was lit up by a blazing installation that stoked up an ambience of warmth to counteract the chilly effects of months of lockdown.

And down the road at the Roland Sports Court we were treated to the intense, potent, emotional and profoundly relevant 846 (above), an audio play co-produced by Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Royal Docks Team in response to the murder of George Floyd in America in May but also taking in the Windrush and Grenfell scandals and the appalling levels of racism that still exist in the UK.

In many ways, the juxtaposition of the heartwarming glow of Fire Garden and the righteous fury of 846 perfectly encapsulated what GDIF is all about – inspiration, entertainment and truth. And never have three things been more important than at this weird and worrying time in our history.

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