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  • Miles Hedley


The theme of this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival was Common Ground, a concept given the greatest possible poignancy as the event drew towards a close by the death of the Queen who, more than anyone, was a symbol of unity in an increasingly polarised world.

Several of the more upbeat events timetabled for GDIF’s final weekend were cancelled as a mark of respect. The decision inevitably caused some disappointment – but this was surely a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And it didn’t prevent the festival being another triumph for the arts, for entertainment and, crucially, for community.

The national outpouring of grief will of course define GDIF 2022. But even before the Palace announcement, the festival had had a strongly elegiac feel as it shone a spotlight on Ukrainian culture which is being systematically targeted by Putin in a bid to eradicate the country’s identity.

There were tears in every eye at the official launch of GDIF at the Queen’s House as Ukrainian artists, who had been in ravaged Kyiv only the previous day, described the horrors of the Russian onslaught and the heroism of Ukrainian resistance.

Later that evening, I felt the tears welling again as a vast diorama of the country’s gorgeous mosaics, which date back 2,000 years, was projected on to a wall at the Old Royal Naval College. Many of these works have been destroyed since they were photographed by Yevgen Nikiforov for this amazing work, Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed (top), which had been created by Tais Poda, Rock N Light Studio, Ptakh Jung and the Ukrainian Institute.

It was absolutely one of the highlights of the entire festival both as a work of art and as a reminder of the savagery that still embroils so much of the world - and thus makes the concept of Common Ground such a vital one.

Earlier, acclaimed poet Lemn Sissay recited a moving poem he had written specially to underscore the festival’s theme. And then, as darkness fell, we were treated to the astonishing Spark by Dutch artist Dan Roosegaarde who filled the warm night sky with millions of biodegradable points of light inspired by fireflies. Huge crowds flocked to see the spectacle and were treated to a unique display of organic fireworks.

Large crowds were a feature of all the events throughout the festival – I imagine the final count will break all previous records. The ORNC grounds and Cutty Sark gardens were thronged for the day-long Greenwich Fair, which offered delights from Italy, Germany, Spain, Flanders and the Netherlands as well as homegrown talent.

Among a day of highlights were such delights as Autin Dance Theatre’s eco-fable Out Of The Deep Blue, Karel Casier and Aat Dirks’ BV Natuur, a sublime mix of slapstick and circus skills, Company Satchok’s gravity-defying Sisyphus and Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s magnificent hymn to indomitability, Black Victorians.

Many of the performers later repeated their turns in Plumstead, Eltham, Abbey Wood, Deptford, Canning Town and Bethnal Green as part of GDIF’s popular hyper-local On Your Doorstep strand.

Thamesmead also got in on the festival act with Fevered Sleep’s deeply affecting The Sky Is Filled With Thunder. As the audience sat in a playground at dusk, they listened to a recording of kids from nearby Windrush Primary School and Hawksmoor Youth Centre talking about home, migration, their dreams, their hopes and their fears in a piece that had the mesmerising refrain: “This is my voice… listen to me… I want to be heard… everyone has the right to be loved not hated…”

Also in Thamesmead, two parkouring acrobats led a crowd through the Moorings Estate in Be Flat’s interactive promenade work Follow Me.

For sheer scale, Charon (above) by Peter Hudson with Building 180 in the Royal Docks was hard to beat. The 32ft wheel set up on the Limmo Peninsula where the River Lea empties into the Thames was adorned with startlingly real strobe-lit skeletons rowing the dead across the Styx to the underworld. This amazing creation, originally seen at America’s legendary Burning Man festival, was due to be on show for most of GDIF but unsurprisingly was closed down in the wake of the Queen’s death.

Other events cancelled out of respect were Unfurl by Air Giants UK, a robotic installation in Bethnal Green Gardens, Simple Cypher’s Roll Play in Globe Town Market, The Relaxerette by Dutch team Arjan Kruidhof, Lân Fan Taal and Explore The North, a hammock-based chillout fairground ride in Rathbone Market in Canning Town, and the 24 performances of 12 different pieces that should have made up the annual two-day Dancing City at Canary Wharf.

Before that, however, we were able to enjoy more of the wonderful treats we have come to expect at GDIF.

Disabled-led company Graeae gave us the lovely This Woven O (above), a circle-of-life parable about a pompous oak tree declining the help of fungal spoors and thus declining in health until realising cooperation is everything. It was set within a gorgeous circular willow-weave auditorium designed by Oliver Macdonald.

Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance had one of the hits of last summer with the Woolwich-based promenade piece En Route, so it was a no-brainer that GDIF should snap up a slightly reworked version this year called En Route To Common Ground because it encapsulates everything the festival espouses – interaction, community, art and fun. Over the course of three glorious hours we walked in a sort of carnival parade from Woolwich Common to the Royal Arsenal riverfront accompanied by dancing, live music, stories and songs that were alternately funny, elegiac, joyous and celebratory.

Another promenade event was Gobbledeook Theatre’s Geophonics on Greenwich Peninsula, which acted as a reminder of our planetary responsibility by examining - with a little help from sci-fi and rave culture - the geology under our feet.

Also on the peninsula, a huge crowd hugely enjoyed Island Of Foam: Version XVIII (below) by German Stephanie Lüning who pumped rainbow stripes of foam down an outdoor stairway to create a sea of polychrome bubbles that were caught by the wind and blown everywhere – much to the delight of onlookers young and old.

As the festival approached its close, Common Wealth and Fuel took over a floor of the multi-storey car park at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to bring us Peaceophobia which featured a customised VW Golf, a Supra and a Nova and the British Muslims who owned them - Ali, Sohail and Casper – who described brilliantly how faith and their passion for motors helped them deal with a relentless round of Islamophobia and police harassment. It was an unforgettable piece about the importance of community in all its forms.

I saw Peaceophobia on the evening the Queen’s death was announced. Organisers decided to go ahead with the performance because it was a reflective, spiritual piece of theatre. As I wrote earlier, several other productions didn’t proceed.

Instead, extra performances of GDIF’s closing show were put on. Tara Theatre’s Final Farewell was a 75-minute round-walk from Island Gardens via Millwall Park in which we listened on MP3 players to four stories about love and loss in a time of Covid. What made the stories riveting was that they were all told by the dead – a gay Iranian photographer who had fled persecution, a premature baby who died moments after being born, an irrepressible Cockney woman who defied racists by marrying an immigrant and an ageing pug dog.

It may sound bizarre but in fact it was exceptionally moving as it highlighted the common ground of love – and made the perfect ending to an emotion-charged, exceptional festival.

Pictures: David Levine


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