Talking festival with Bradley Hemmings
There’s plenty to entertain all ages at this year’s Greenwich And Docklands International Festival, with exciting, immersive theatre at its core, says artistic director Bradley Hemmings
Aphotoluminescent celebration of Windrush, dancing table tennis, an unfolding shipping container, 1,500 specially trained pigeons and 100 years of female suffrage.
These are some of the diverse ingredients Bradley Hemmings has drawn together for his 23rd Greenwich And Docklands International Festival (GDIF).
Constantly driven to improve and develop the annual cluster of performances, he’s been artistic director since its inception and it’s a role he clearly relishes.
“I think the audience is hungry for the sort of immersive outdoor theatre our festival provides in London,” he said.
“In 1996, I had been working in Greenwich and saw the opportunity of creating a cross-river festival.
“At that time, we didn’t have the DLR links, the Jubilee line or the Emirates Air Line – the only way you could go back and forth was a through the Greenwich foot tunnel or via the Blackwall Tunnel.
“It was the last year of the London Docklands Development Corporation and they participated – that’s how the festival was born.
“People on the two sides of the Thames did not connect with each other before – it’s a very different world now.
“The festival is always reinventing itself, doing new things, finding new locations as well as some of the tried and tested and familiar spaces that are used. It keeps itself young.
“Every year we get more ambitious and more people attend.”
Opening and closing
“We have two major productions in an area that we have worked in before but not so extensively – that is Thamesmead,” said Bradley.
“It is right on the edge of the south east corner of London and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018.
“Memorably, it was used as a location for the film adaptation of
A Clockwork Orange, but it was also the inspiration for Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing, which was written 25 years ago and will be performed there to close the festival (9.45pm, July 3-7). I am very excited about that.”
Equally thrilling for the 57-year-old is the events’ other bookend, also in Thamesmead and a UK premiere.
At 9.15pm, daily from June 21-23, American artist Duke Riley will perform Fly By Night.
“He has been working for the last month to train 1,500 pigeons,” said Bradley. “They are each fitted with an LED light that goes onto their foot – it is a project reflecting on the First World War and the way in which birds were used as part of the whole reconnaissance and communication effort.
“At night, the pigeons will fly and the LED colours will come on and that should make for an extraordinary experience – new and very unusual. It’s a first. “It really will be quite something. “We really try to make our festival connect with the people and places that make this area so unique.
“Thamesmead has been a place that is trying to find itself for a while and there is a real breath of fresh air there.
“There is a real feeling of transformation and these events are all part of celebrating that.
“We see the festival as something that could work hand-in-hand with local people, the private sector and local authorities to create and build places that people care about.
“When Crossrail comes to Abbey Wood, that’s going to change everything.”
Key for Bradley is that GDIF should make its venues more “convivial” places, helping to foster a sense of community.
“There are always lovely, smallscale dance performances,” he said. “Since 2002 we have run the UK’s main outdoor dance performance – for one day each year – all the public spaces and piazzas of Canary Wharf are taken over for Dancing City (June 30).
“We have an amazing production called Origami, which will take place at Canary Riverside (June 28-29, various times and locations), which will see a large shipping container unpack.
“It is created like a piece of origami and will unfold in sections. The dancer appears from within it.
“Another, Doubles, (June 30, Wren Landing, Canary Wharf, from 1.45pm) has been created with a young choreographer called Joe Garbett.
“It is a piece of contemporary dance, very playful and all played around a table tennis table – that’s one I’m particularly looking forward to seeing.”
In addition to the frivolous and playful, many of the performances seek a deeper resonance.
Bradley said: “Here in Greenwich we have a high-wire walk at the Old Royal Naval College on freestanding towers between the two cupolas.
“Undaunted (June 22, 7.30pm) marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation Of The People Act, which gave some women the vote in Britain for the first time.
“That’s with Phoebe Bullzini, who is the only woman in the country who does high-wire walking and it really will be a dramatic sight.
“After that (8pm, Cutty Sark Gardens), we will be reflecting on the 70th anniversary to the day of the Empire Windrush landing at Tilbury, which has been a great deal in the news lately.
“We have been working with playwright Roy Williams, who has been interviewing people of Caribbean heritage and hearing their stories.
“He will be creating a soundscape for Windrush: 492, which will be playing as the names of the 492 passengers on the ship are written in photoluminescent powder on the ground.
‘‘ People on the two sides of the Thames didn’t connect with each other before Bradley Hemmings, GDIF
“It will be an ephemeral monument to that moment when post-war Britain changed.”
With such a range of performances scheduled, Bradley was keen to stress prospective spectators need not worry too much about a lengthy investment in becoming audience members. He urged people to spend what time they could.
“I think one of the great things about the festival is that it is very informal – it’s all about the things we like to see as the sun comes out, the conviviality of public spaces,” he said.
“People can grab something for lunch and see a performance in that kind of mode. You don’t have to make a massive commitment – you could come all the way to Thamesmead to see the pigeons and you won’t be disappointed, but you can equally pop down and see something for 15 minutes and that’s just as good.
“It’s something you will never see at any other time of the year.
“It’s all incredibly surprising, very Instagrammable and something that you will want to share with your friends.”
GDIF runs from June 21 until July 7 across Docklands and is free to attend.
Origami and Doubles (inset) are just two of the shows taking place during the festival
Fly By Night will be performed in Thamesmead and features 1,500 pigeons