The UK outdoor arts scene has welcomed European artists with open arms. Continuing the Culture after Brexit series, Lyn Gardner visits the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, reporting on ambitious new productions from the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, and talking to Artistic Director Bradley Hemmings about his hopes for the future
"We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"
A view of the London skyline in de Roovers's production of A View from the Bridge. Photograph: Stef Sessel
The UK may have been slow in some respects in embracing theatre from Europe, with too few venues giving us the chance to see work made by the great European directors of the last 30 years. But if there is one area where the UK has welcomed European artists with open arms, it has been in the field of street theatre.
Companies from France, Spain and other EU countries have regularly been invited to UK festivals, and companies such as Royal de Luxe have taken over our streets with large-scale spectacles such as The Sultan's Elephant and Sea Odyssey and we have loved them. These are shows that have proved over and over that outdoor theatre has the ability to touch hearts and change minds as much as any of the work that takes place in theatres behind closed doors.
The disruption of the everyday can make us reconsider that space, look at it differently and reclaim that space for a different purpose. When El Comediants took over Battersea Park with The Devils in 1985 as part of London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) or The Sultan's Elephant came to London in 2006, familiar spaces and streets suddenly belonged to people running wild in carnival fashion. That's subversive, and very un-Anglo-Saxon.
Every year Dancing City, part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF), takes over Canary Wharf, filling its concrete malls with picnicking families watching dance and dancing themselves, when for the rest of the year it is the preserve of men in suits making money.
"Often the British funding system has seen street arts less valued than Shakespeare"
Of course it's not, as Bradley Hemmings, Artistic Director of GDIF points out, that the UK doesn't have a tradition of making street-based theatre. Most of the notable companies of the 1960s, 70s and 80s such as Footsbarn (who moved to France), Welfare State and Station House Opera saw the street as their natural domain, a place where they could meet audiences on equal terms and remind us that public spaces should indeed be for the public.
But often the British funding system has seen street arts less valued than Shakespeare or Stoppard. Hemmings says that although "we are moving towards a position of greater parity with the indoor theatre world, there is still a long way to go."
Nonetheless alongside a new generation of performers and companies such as Tangled Feet and Fine Chisel, who are as comfortable working outside as in, some of those older companies are still making their presence felt. At this year's GDIF the 40-year-old IOU were in action with Rear View, a wonderfully perceptive show about how we see our own lives and the streets in which we live.
There are two versions of the show, but I saw the one written and performed by poet and theatremaker Cecilia Knapp in which a 65-year-old woman looks back on her younger self. Beginning with a life-drawing class in which Knapp is the model, it opens up and out as we take to a specially fashioned bus where we put on headphones. We are driven around the streets – always with a rear view – to find Knapp in different locations that have meaning for her elderly character and which gradually acquire meaning for us too as the story unfolds.
Knapp's writing is light as a bird's feather and often soars, but what is moving here – in more ways than one – is the way we see one person's life coming sharply into focus and then gradually receding. Quite literally as the bus moves off. It's a wonderfully accessible show that makes you think about both growing old and about our younger selves. In the final image, our bus pulls away and we see Knapp gradually getting smaller and smaller as we drive into our future. You want to leap from the bus and give her a hug, just as we might hug our own 25-year-old selves if we could.
"Rear View is British street theatre at its most ambitious and idiosyncratic"
Not a bad Rear View. Photograph: IOU
Rear View is an example of British street theatre work at both its most ambitious and idiosyncratic. It combines the strengths of text with spectacle, in this instance the spectacle of familiar streets – the GDIF performances took place in Eltham in south-east London – with the spectacle of our own lives. Rear View may only be for an audience of 25 people at a time, but there is something as epic and universal about its scope as in a large-scale piece of work by Royal de Luxe.
"There is," says Hemmings, "a real appetite for this work, it's just a question of making it sustainable in the UK." He's right. Despite getting a bigger bite of the funding cake, British street art remains one of the Cinderellas of British theatre. But you only have to visit Greenwich Fair over the first weekend of the festival and look at the crowds to see the hunger for different kinds of experience and the pleasure that street arts can bring. It is written all over people's faces.
Thrill Laboratory's VR Playground in which audiences take their place on a swing, don a VR headset and get taken on a virtual reality ride, seems like a living demonstration of research that suggests people are increasingly less interested in buying stuff and more keen on the experiential. That should only be a good thing for street arts because seeing Fine Chisel's Flit, Flap and Fly, which takes the audience inside a bird's nest, doesn't make any credit card debt at all – just memories.
VR Playground is one of those pieces where the slightly surreal experience of watching other audience members participate is as fun as actually taking part yourself. As Hemmings observes, one of the things that street arts does is to instantly solve all of the issues over accessibility that British theatre faces in an era of rising ticket prices. Research from the Warwick Commission found that the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of the population are its most culturally active segment.
It's one of the reasons why it's so good to see outdoor street arts shows thriving in culturally deprived areas of the country such as at the Appetite festival in Stoke-on-Trent. But as Hemmings says, "it's no good thinking that the job is done simply by putting the work in a public space. You've still got to meet the audience and make sure that what you are producing reflects the demography and needs of that particular place.
"It would be nice to see more of these bold experiments exploring the relationship between theatre and landscape"
Catching a thrill at the VR Playground. Photograph: James Berry
It would be nice if the UK could produce more, bigger scale work – and the arrival of creation centres such as 101 at Greenham Arts or the Drill Hall on the east coast should help facilitate that. But it's not as if the small-scale can't have as great an impact as shows produced on the large-scale. Rear View proves that, so does Belgium company Post Uit Hessdalen's Pakman which was also part of Greenwich Fair.
Pakman is a simple idea that is brilliantly executed. Pakman is one of those people who, often on a zero-hours contract, works in a huge online warehouse. His day is spent putting the things we buy online into boxes and dispatching them. In a great little touch, the seats for the performance are made from those boxes and must be passed around the audience.
But we don't watch Pakman filling the boxes, instead we witness him in a tiny space juggling with balls that fly off the walls at angles in the confined space to the thud and thump of drums. We don't just see the pressure that Pakman is under, we actually understand it even as we applaud his virtuosity in keeping all the balls in the air. The show is a lovely example of what theatre is capable of doing so well: being wildly entertaining and also building empathy. It will make you think twice next time you are online shopping.
"Nobody wants the doors to slam shut on two-way traffic"
Hemmings believes that combing action and narrative is still one of the challenges facing outdoor arts. It was for that reason that this year's GDIF featured performances of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, created by the Dutch company de Roovers, was designed to be played in outdoor settings. This particular production was brilliantly sited on the Greenwich Peninsula so the characters were dwarfed by the huge buildings of Canary Wharf; the names of the banks picked out in neon as the tragedy of Eddie Carbone and the immigrants of Brooklyn unfolded.
This wasn't the most finely acted version of Miller's play that you will ever encounter. But the marrying of landscape and narrative gave an old drama new life, reminding us of the way capital affects the lives of ordinary people and how often it is in cities – whether it's 1950s Brooklyn or 21st century London – that rich and poor live in touching distance of each other, with the lives of the have-nots over-shadowed and unseen by the haves.
It would be nice to see more of these bold experiments exploring the relationship between theatre and landscape and what is and isn't possible within an outdoor context. But as Hemmings says, the drop in the pound and the triggering of Article 50 leading to the UK's departure from the EU do not help the British outdoor arts scene at a time when it is starting to broaden its ambition.
"There is such creativity and such ambition in the outdoor work being made, and here in the UK we've made such strides in recent years. But we need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe. Nobody wants the doors to slam shut on two-way traffic."
Join Lyn Gardner on Facebook Live on 21 August as she discusses what's happening in UK theatre and dance from Edinburgh, with Laura Cameron-Lewis and Andrew Jones.
This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU. To this conversation we will invite journalists, artists, arts professionals and policy makers to join a robust discussion about what Brexit means for the creative and cultural industries, and what a new post-Brexit cultural relationship could, and should, look like.
Follow the Culture after Brexit series:
> Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?
> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"
> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival
> How will Brexit affect UK arts?: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts