Last year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival was that rarest of beasts: a UK summer festival that actually happened. Uniquely well set up to cope with a pandemic, GDIF brings spectacular, mostly free outdoor theatre to the streets of London’s Thamesside boroughs, and it snuck out a 2020 edition in the face of overwhelming odds.
‘It was a big challenge,’ says Bradley Hemmings, who founded the festival way back in 1996. ‘But it’s a festival we’re all incredibly proud of. GDIF 2020 was the first major live event of its kind to take place since lockdown.’
If last year’s programme was a heroic exercise in damage control, made with huge restrictions, then GDIF 2021 is more like back to ‘normal’. For starters, a lot of regulars are back, including the Greenwich Fair – a family-friendly festival within a festival in Cutty Sark Gardens and the Old Royal Naval College’s grounds – and Dancing City, two days of startling dance all over Canary Wharf.
There’s also large-scale international work featuring some of the first overseas artists to perform in the UK for 18 months. Because of post-Brexit visas and quarantine rules, Hemmings says it’s been ‘a nailbiting business’ but he’s ‘confident about welcoming artists from Flanders, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and Israel’.
There’s a dance show about Britain’s pre-Windrush Black population (‘Black Victorians’), a Flemish production of Dennis Potter’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ that will be performed on a restricted landfill site and, arguably the festival highlight, Swiss artist Dan Acher’s ‘Borealis’, a high-concept laser show designed to recreate the Northern Lights over Greenwich and Woolwich.
‘The pandemic has meant that we haven’t been able to stage destination events for lots of people,’ says Hemmings. ‘Last year we experimented with installations that audiences could experience safely over a longer period. As London reopens, “Borealis” feels like a wonderful way of building on this – an evocation of an extraordinary phenomenon in two stunning settings.’
Heads up: ‘Borealis’ is sold out in Greenwich (walk-up returns are likely as the tickets were free), but there’s still availability for Woolwich. With the nights getting longer, it should look spectacular. But if you can’t make that show, don’t worry: the festival offers a whole world of culture to explore.
GDIF 2021 runs Aug 27-Sep 11.