Running from Friday 28 August until Saturday 12 September, GDIF will be the UK’s first full arts festival to go ahead in physical form since the lockdown, but things will look a little different to previous years. Gone are the mass parades and street parties that traditionally see thousands descend on General Gordon Square in Woolwich on the opening and closing nights of the festival. As festival founder and artistic director Bradley Hemmings explained to Culture Whisper, these types of gatherings aren’t sustainable right now. ‘Instead, we’ve moved to installation works that can be put into a public place for a few days and we can manage audience visitations in a way that observes social distancing guidelines,’ he says.
‘Reflection and remembrance are also in my mind, so lots of fireworks and dancing isn’t the right thing to do at the moment,’ he continues. ‘What we’ve ended up with is a programme I feel very proud of – it’s had to really listen to where people are and I hope we’ve got that right.’ That said, events with capacities of up to 250 visitors will still go ahead with additional health and safety precautions in place.
Blue Remembered Hills. Photo: GDIF
There’s never a strict theme to GDIF, but current affairs usually underpin the work exhibited at the festival. Last year, Brexit was a strong undertone; this year, both the virus and Black Lives Matter are prominent issues which have inspired the creations on show.
‘The idea of being inclusive has been there all along but we want to really draw that out this year,’ says Hemmings. ‘I think we have to be even more articulate and passionate about Black Lives Matter at the moment.’
GDIF nearly didn’t happen at all this year. The government only issued guidance for outdoor events in mid-July, leaving the team behind GDIF with a little over a month to put the wheels in motion for the festival they’d been planning behind closed doors. The announcement of travel corridors was also hugely significant to the programme, as so many artists staging work come from overseas.
Typically boasting over 130 different spectacles, this year GDIF has been scaled back to just 25 productions, with a focus on bringing events closer to people’s homes. A new project, On Your Doorstep, will quite literally see street theatre brought to the doors of people across the borough, to prevent them having to use public transport to access the festival.
‘Scale wise, it’s going to feel smaller but we’re holding onto the essence of GDIF – the idea of togetherness and celebration in a public space – and we’re working with health and safety advisors to come up with new ways to make that happen,’ affirms Hemmings.
Here are some of the GDIF highlights to catch…
In Memoriam. Photo: GDIF
WHEN: Friday 28 - Monday 31 August, 2:30pm-8pm
Luke Jerram’s new installation In Memoriam is a temporary memorial to those who have lost their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a tribute to the NHS staff and key workers who have helped us through it. Constructed from flags made out of bed sheets in NHS blue, the installation – which is located near the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich – can be walked through at leisure, while ceremonial performances will also take place there throughout the festival.
WHEN: Saturday 12 September | WHERE: North Woolwich
Created in response to the murder of George Floyd, and co-produced with Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Royal Docks Team, 846 Live is the brainchild of playwright Roy Williams, who commissioned a selection of black and Asian writers to create something around the theme of ‘eight minutes and 46 seconds’, the time white police officer Derek Chauvin spent kneeling on Floyd’s neck before he died. The works are being brought to life by actors and a live DJ.
WHEN: Friday 4 - Saturday 5 September, 7.30pm | WHERE: Silvertown Square
Future Cargo is the fourth large-scale outdoor dance performance from physical theatre-maker, choreographer and performer Frauka Requardt and performance maker David Rosenberg. A science-fiction tale, in which a truck arrives from a distant planet containing everything required to colonise Earth, it's set in a shipping container and uses headphones and binaural recordings to allow the audience to listen to the sounds from within the distant interior space which they look upon. It's a comment on globalisation and the need for new beginnings.
Black Victorians. Photo: GDIF
WHEN: Saturday 29 & Sunday 30 August, 2pm, 3:30pm & 5pm | WHERE: St George’s Garrison Church
Black Victorians is a dance performance piece which aims to raise awareness of the often forgotten black presence in pre-Windrush Britain. Inspired by 19th century studio photographs of black men, women and children, the performance calls attention to previously ‘hidden figures’, challenging historical and contemporary perceptions.
WHEN: Friday 28 August, 6pm-9:30pm | WHERE: General Gordon Square
A new piece of ‘prose-poetry’ by Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo is being revealed in a temporary installation in Woolwich Town Centre. Called The Weavers of Woolwich, the poem is being inscribed into the paving of General Gordon Square in photo-luminescent powder by Dutch artist Gijs van Bon, where it will be accompanied by a soundscape by Roma Yagnik. Conceived as an ‘epic people’s history’, the piece celebrates the spirit and resilience of the diverse communities who have made Woolwich their home.
WHEN: Friday 28 - Monday 31 August, 7.30pm, 8.30pm, 9.30pm | WHERE: Old Royal Naval College
After hosting the quirky Pasture with Cows installation at the 2019 festival, the Old Royal Naval College is this year home to Chorus, Ray Lee’s towering installation of sound and light sculptures. Here, giant metal tripods emblazoned with red LED lights rotate to generate whirling orbits of colour and sound, delivering an uplifting, captivating and immersive sonic spectacle.
Dancing City. Photo: GDIF
Of course, not everyone will feel comfortable venturing out to enjoy GDIF this year – even with additional health and safety measures in place. To prevent them from missing out, the team behind it are working on ways to stream as many of the events as possible, so people can enjoy them from their homes.
In a bid to unite the community ahead of the festival, the team launched a community project: Weaving Together. The scheme saw artists of various disciplines come up with activities around the theme of weaving which anyone can take part in from home, producing something to form part of an installation which will be on show as part of the festival. ‘Weaving together is a celebration of how we look after one another and the resilience of the communities in Greenwich, using weaving as a metaphor,’ explains Hemmings, who also co-directed the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games in 2012.
‘I’ve witnessed the same community spirit I saw during the London Olympics in the lead-up to GDIF this year,’ he says. ‘It’s been wonderful to watch how people have come together. It’s been a horrible and hard time but there’s been a greater awareness of how we all need each other and how resilience comes from looking after each other,’ he adds.
‘That’s very much in the spirit of what this festival is all about. People have a lot of painful and hard memories from this year, but I hope the festival will remain in their minds as something positive that they can look back on at the end of 2020.'
|What||Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2020|
28 Aug 20 – 12 Sep 20, Performance times vary
|Website||Click here for more information|