In a festival overloaded with interesting collaborations Greenwich+Docklands this year brought together Australian street arts and circus company Strange Fruit, who work atop custom four-metre sway poles, with disabled-led theatre company Graeae. Performed in Cutty Sark Gardens with its back to the Thames, the result, Against the Tide, is a funny and richly evoked piece of storytelling with all the emotional depth and compression of a folk tale.
Living in the middle of a desert landscape, an engaging band of slightly piratical individuals lament the loss of water and, with it, memory. They play games and tell stories; sing and sign (Graeae’s work includes finding ways to creatively integrate sign language into theatre performance). The text is lyrical and compact, and each minor image is a gift: a bird is a man pulling a carriage of copper wings; a ship’s sail becomes the wedding veil of a bride marrying a seaman; a washing line of clothes is packed away and sent to sea as love and family are lost.
The rhythm of the swaying poles, mounted by both Strange Fruit performers and Graeae cast (who underwent intensive training at Circus Space), finds its analogue in the rhythm of waves, the rhythm of speech/signing, and the loss of memory and its return. It is, to look at, an incredibly beautiful piece, performed the Friday I saw it on an extraordinary day: the sky blue and the clouds white, the hot and cold colours of the costumes vibrant and very clear, the men and women atop their poles in a position of grace. (I caught a little of it again on Saturday, in the evening, having spent an hour of the afternoon hiding in Greenwich Market from an intense thunderstorm, water pouring in and up from the overflowed drains—and when Against the Tide’s character Flo recounted her birth during a huge storm the crowd thought it was funny, but there was a little extra electricity, too, from the close memory of the violence of nature, and when I left it that performance seemed to be headed somewhere sadder and darker.)
Running the length of human emotion and experience—going from orchestral string music to Dolly Parton—Against the Tide is a terrific success: a big adventurous step forward from where Strange Fruit were the last time I saw them (performing The Field at G+D 2007), and a great example of two companies combining their different skills so you can’t see the join.