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  • Miles Hedley


The annual delight that is the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival pulled off an amazing coup in its 25th outing last summer. It was not only the first major public event after 2020’s total nationwide Covid lockdown but it also managed to maintain – in fact, enhance - its reputation for combining the spectacular with the intimate and the global with the local through a programme of performances and installations that brought joy to a battered population. So how on earth do they top that in 2021?

Artistic director Bradley Hemmings is in no doubt – the winning formula involves mixing up a cocktail of mass-appeal fun, high-quality art and what he describes as the festival’s civic role, which this year includes such vital issues as the climate emergency, Black Lives Matter and, of course, the pandemic.

As current Government rules stand, the festival – due to run between 27 August and 11 September – will be less restricted than last year’s shows but social-distancing protocols mean they will still be more modest than some of the extravaganzas of previous incarnations.

And should lockdown easing not go as smoothly as everyone hopes, organisers can use last year’s festival as a sort of blueprint if last-minute rejigs are needed. Bradley said: “We are well-placed to adapt to late changes but naturally we are hoping it’s not necessary because in the end the festival is all about the audience.”

He added: “We are so proud of what we achieved last year and it proved that there’s a real appetite for big outdoor events. But we won’t be going back to things like town centre shows that attract huge crowds. Instead, we’re bringing in longer-term but just as spectacular events such as We Are Watching and Borealis.”

Both of these are the work of renowned Swiss artist Dan Acher. The first, We Are Watching (above), is a flag bearing the image of a giant all-seeing eye. It will be as tall as a ten-storey building and is being hoisted high above Greenwich to formally launch the festival and to raise awareness in the run-up to November’s UN climate change conference, COP26, which is being held in Glasgow.

And from 27 August to 11 September the astonishing laser installation Borealis (top) will turn the skies of south-east London into a fantasia on the ever-changing multicoloured miracle of the Northern Lights which is likely to be visible from the City in the west to Thamesmead in the east and all points in between.

Hate crimes are a growing issue around the world and GDIF has never shirked from confronting racism in particular and bigotry in general. This year is no different.

At Charlton House from 27-30 August you can see the uncompromising drama Family Tree, a work-in-progress about medical ethics inspired by Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman killed by cancer in 1951 whose cells were then harvested without consent. The cells later played a vital role in new disease treatments, decoding the human genome and creating coronavirus vaccines.

The BLM theme continues with Jeanefer Jean-Charles’ dance work Black Victorians. Some of us were lucky enough to see a brilliant early version of it (below) at GDIF 2020 so we can’t wait to catch the full-length piece it has since become. It is being stayed in the City of London’s Guildhall Yard from 31 August to 4 September then transferring to the gorgeously evocative setting of Woolwich’s bombed-out St George’s Garrison Church on 10 and 11 September.

The festival has always celebrated European artistic collaborations and this year, as the country struggles to find its place in the world since quitting the EU, it has teamed up with two acclaimed Flemish theatre companies, De Roovers and Laika.

De Roovers – who had to pull out of last year’s festival because of Covid travel restrictions – has reimagined Dennis Potter’s devastating TV play Blue Remembered Hills (below), setting its tragic story about wartime childhood in an eerie and, till now, inaccessible part of Thamesmead that was once at the heart of vast munitions works. The story has an added relevance today as we begin to understand the full effects of lockdown on the mental health of many of our own kids.

The exact location will be revealed only to ticket-holders who will be bussed to the site from Abbey Wood station for the evening performances on 7-11 September.

On the same dates at Building 41 in the Royal Arsenal complex in nearby Woolwich you can see Laika’s magical creation Balsam which promises a melange of live music, drama and aromatic healing elixirs – surely something we could all do with in the wake of the pandemic.

Community arts remain a high priority for Bradley and his team – indeed, community resilience is yet another theme of the festival. To underscore that, hyper-local touring programmes of family-friendly events will be taking place in Eltham, Deptford, Thamesmead, Plumstead and Charlton.

The latter two are due to see roaming performances on 1 and 2 September of the spectacular Mystery Bird, a work inspired by our growing awareness of birdsong during lockdown. It features a huge birdcage wreathed in avian sounds and projected images which is eventually opened so that the ”freed” birds can swoop and soar over the streets, gardens and rooftops.

And after missing out last year, the ever-popular Greenwich Fair returns to the World Heritage Site on 29 August with a fun-filled roster of street arts, circus, theatre and dance.

Speaking of which, dance fans are in for a treat. In the Royal Docks on 3 and 4 September you can catch Requardt & Rosenberg’s epic sci-fi show Future Cargo (above) – another postponement from 2020 – and on 4 and 5 September Dancing City will take over Canary Wharf.

Highlights include a range of pioneering black-led work plus the astonishing Gandini Juggling performing a piece based on the work of legendary US choreographer Merce Cunningham.

And earlier, on 28 and 29 August, the Greenwich Peninsula riverside park called The Tide will be the setting for even more choreography - plus stunning costumes - with a programme called Dance By Design which includes Ashley Peevor’s interactive street theatre piece The Lost Opera (below) and Patrick Ziza’s gorgeous Dandyism, one of the high points of Dancing City last year.

Closing the festival this year will be Healing Together on 10 and 11 September with events staged on opposite banks of the Thames at Woolwich town centre and Royal Victoria Gardens in North Woolwich. The performances for the finale include After The Storm, A Square World, Bee-ology, Urban Astronaut, What Happened To You and From Greenwich With Love.

All in all, the GDIF programme is one of ingenuity, imagination and never-say-die spirit. Bradley said: “Over the past year outdoor theatre-makers have proved themselves to be resourceful and resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges and this year’s festival will demonstrate the extraordinary quality and originality of their work.”

Full details of all the performances at

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