Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors at the National Theatre
Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors is a powerful verbatim play written by Gillian Slovo that weaves together interviews from survivors of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire with footage and commentary from the controversial inquiry. This devastating incident occurred on 14th June 2017, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, resulting in 72 fatalities and numerous injuries. The fire’s rapid spread was attributed to combustible cladding and inadequate fire safety measures, sparking public outcry and investigations into building regulations. Despite the gravity of the event, justice remains elusive, with no one having been held accountable for this atrocity.
Under the skilled direction of Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, the play compellingly shares the accounts of individuals such as Feruza Afewerki, Tiago Alves, Judith Blakeman, Nick Burton, Edward Daffarn, Natasha Elcock, Bellal El-Guenuni, Fatima El-Guenuni, Maher Khoudair, Karim Mussilhy, Antonio Roncolato, Rabiya Yahya, Turufat Yilma and Hanan Wahabi. These survivors either experienced the fire firsthand or had loved ones trapped inside the tower. Admittedly, reviewing a production of this nature is challenging, as it delves into the lived traumas of those who endured the tragedy. However, the cast handles this sensitive material with the utmost care, explicitly differentiating themselves from the characters they portray.
Beyond merely recounting the fire’s tragedy, the play’s central theme revolves around community, which thrived within the Tower and continues to resonate even after its destruction. To foster a sense of connection, the audience is encouraged to introduce themselves to their neighbours, acknowledging the real people surrounding them rather than just faceless statistics. It serves as a touching reminder that these are the lives of genuine individuals, a fact that governmental responses often overlook. Rather than pointing fingers, the verbatim approach presents the facts objectively and emphasises the unity and strength of the community.
Though much of the play struck a chord of indignation at the negligence of those who could have made a difference, the heart-wrenching stories of Rabia Yahya and Bellal El-Guenuni (portrayed by Houda Echouafni and Rachid Sabitri) and Nick Burton (played by Ash Hunter) are profoundly moving, eliciting an emotional response. One particular moment that stands out is Burton’s poignant account of his wife’s funeral, nearly a year after the devastating fire. The imagery of the community rallying together to honour her life and provide unwavering support in his grief was so touching that it left the audience in utter silence, a testament to the impact of their collective experience.
Towards the play’s end, the survivors, who have lovingly shared their stories, take centre stage in the form of a video documentary. The quiet that envelops the auditorium during this affecting tribute demonstrates their respect and admiration for these resilient individuals. There is then a moment where the audience is uncharacteristically asked to leave the theatre and “plant” green hearts outside, lighting the building in green. In the heart of bustling London, the 72 victims are remembered with solemn contemplation at the foot of the National Theatre.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy did not befall a group of strangers; it struck a close-knit family and community who fought valiantly to protect themselves. Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors skillfully sheds light on the racism, classism and ignorance of those in power that ultimately led to the loss and devastation of countless lives. Beyond mourning alongside the survivors, the production implores us to stand up for justice for the 72 lives lost and for those still coping with the aftermath. It is a call to action to advocate for our rights in everyday life, inspired by the resilience and strength displayed by the Grenfell community.
Image: Myah Jeffers
Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors is at the National Theatre from 20th July until 6th August 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.