Grenfell: in the words of survivors – ‘We want this play to sit alongside the campaign for justice’
As new verbatim play Grenfell: in the words of survivors comes to the National Theatre, directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike explain why they want the play to inspire audiences to join the fight for justice
Grenfell: in the words of survivors. Actor Pearl Mackie stars in the play
Six years have passed since the Grenfell Tower fire. Yet, until justice is served and legislation passed, the survivors, the bereaved and the wider North Kensington community can have little peace. This tragedy in which 72 people died continues to dominate so many lives, just as the wreckage of the tower still dominates the skyline.
Popular culture has been trying to get to grips with the enormity of a tragedy that has come to be seen as powerfully emblematic of the failures of austerity and the dangers of deregulation.
A new verbatim play, Grenfell: in the words of survivors, created from interviews by Gillian Slovo and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike is opening at the National Theatre. We went to its Southbank headquarters to ask Lloyd and Simpson-Pike about the responsibility of taking on the story of Grenfell, and how theatre can help the fight for justice.
How have you ensured survivors and the bereaved, and the wider community, are involved in this production?
Phyllida Lloyd: I met with [writer] Gillian Slovo four years ago to talk about it. And from that moment, we felt we needed to build a team that believed the process of making it was going to be as important as the work we made.
Anthony Simpson-Pike: We both had a clear feeling that the process is political. The play’s not the only thing. You can make change or affect communities positively through how you do something, as well as through the play’s message. We went with the National Theatre’s learning department to meet organisations in North Kensington to ask: ‘what could the National Theatre usefully do? What would you want a partnership to look like?’
PL: This could never be just a play. Questions of what the North Kensington community would get out of it were fundamental. We were conscious that there have been plays that focus on the public inquiry, and that the voices of the bereaved and survivors have not been heard on a national platform.
Why did you choose this verbatim style of storytelling for Grenfell: in the words of survivors – and how has the project evolved through the community’s involvement?
PL: We’ve been cautious about using verbatim. There is a danger that you sort of teleport into a community, grab the stories, sell tickets, entertain the audience, then it’s goodnight, go home. That could never be the path with this.
ASP: We’ve been extremely careful to make sure the people whose words make up the play and those most affected have as much agency over it as possible.
PL: We’ve shared material along the way with the contributors and then a wider audience in North Kensington at The Tabernacle to seek response and feedback. It’s constantly evolving.
ASP: The play is a mix of the words of survivors and material from the inquiry. Some more technical elements of what happened, the play uses the inquiry to explain those. Then you get the real human story of what that felt like, first-hand, through the words of residents. We’ve designed the production to feel like you’re in a town hall or people’s parliament. We’re all listening together. We can see each other. And hopefully by the end of it, we feel like we’ve become a bit of a community.
PL: And we’ve seen ourselves in the shoes of the contributors. We asked what they wanted from the National Theatre audience. One response was that “they see themselves in us”.
Why did you feel this was the right time to tell this story at the National Theatre?
PL: The story has to be kept alive. And there was a danger it was drowning in the coverage of the pandemic. However much any of us might think we know what happened, you could have tracked the public inquiry, have local knowledge or been following reports all the way through and still be astonished and educated. You will also be inspired by the resilience of the community. As much as trying to share the horror of what people went through and their suffering, this is about what an inspiration that group of people are.
ASP: Grenfell isn’t something that no one could have foreseen. The residents had foreseen the possibility of this fire and hadn’t been listened to. At each stage of decision making – around the refurbishment, the relationship with the council and the KCTMO [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], the government response afterwards – decisions were made that reveal with utter clarity the system that we live under. If you want to understand that system, you have to understand what happened at Grenfell.
What system are we talking about?
PL: Global capitalism. Profit before people. The consequences of deregulation going back to Thatcher and the deregulation under the coalition where health and safety rules were slashed.
ASP: The Red Tape Challenge – which was ‘one regulation in, two regulations out’. Austerity is a huge part of the story. From whether there were enough call handlers with proper training to how many firefighters there were. This was cost-cutting at an extreme level and at the expense of human life. They avoided regulating the building sector over fears that prioritising health and safety and human life would cost too much.
PL: And the revolving door of housing ministers meant nobody focused on the necessary changes to building regulations, which had become so opaque. We track the way that much that occurred at Grenfell was flagged by the coroner after the Lakanal House fire [in 2009]. Despite a parliamentary committee lobbying the government, they were still ignored.
What continues to shock you about the Grenfell tragedy and its aftermath?
ASP: The extent to which everything that could have gone wrong went wrong – and that there were often quite knowing decisions behind those things.
PL: There was incompetence and corruption.
ASP: The level of corruption somehow surprised me. Having learned more about Grenfell, I don’t think I could ever be surprised by those levels of corruption again.
What do you want the outcome to be? How do you ensure this play and the wider project helps the fight for justice?
PL: We want this play to sit closely alongside the campaign for justice. After six years of fighting for change people are exhausted. And they need the rest of us to start doing some heavy lifting.
ASP: People have very different versions of what justice looks like. But it needs to be led by the bereaved and survivors and community. I personally think criminal justice is important. And legislation is important. Because there will be another Grenfell unless legislative change happens.
PL: And is economic growth the be all and end all? Is profit? Do we have to live by that as a measure of the success of our society? How much do we all need?
ASP: I don’t think theatre can replace legislation or policy change or criminal justice. But it can serve as a platform for people’s words, for people’s stories, for people’s call for justice.
PL: We know we have this enormous story to share. If we have anxiety, it is about making sure we share it in the most potent and accessible way with an audience. Our every waking hour is spent trying to do the best by the words we’ve been offered.
In 2018, one year after Grenfell, we spoke with survivor Tiago Alves. The idea that, five years later, he and his fellow survivors and those that lost loved ones are still fighting for justice is hard to bear.
PL: Tiago is one of our key contributors. He is a very special person.
ASP: They still haven’t got justice, but it’s not only their job to get justice. And that is one of the hopes of this production. It’s like a baton being passed to the audience: it’s now your turn, all of our turns, to fight for this as well. People are tired, and they shouldn’t have to shoulder it alone.
PL: We don’t just want to move them or inform them. We also want to activate the audience and offer practical or existential ideas about how to make the necessary change.
Grenfell: in the words of survivors runs until August 26 at the National Theatre
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