Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
The National Theater will stage a literal performance based on the accounts of survivors and those bereaved of the Grenfell Tower fire almost six years ago as the centerpiece of a long-term collaborative project with the West London community.
The play, Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors, is the work of writer and playwright Gillian Slovo, who spent five years gaining the trust of community members and recording their accounts of the North Kensington disaster that killed 72 people.
The show will be told in three parts: the buildup to the fire on June 14, 2017, the night of the catastrophe, and a final filmed section where survivors and mourners talk about their ongoing campaign for justice.
At the same time the NT, based at the Southbank Centre, will work with the North Kensington community on creative projects in the area, learning programs in local schools, workshops and offer paid placements with the NT for local people.
Immediately after the fire, Slovo and Rufus Norris, artistic director of the NT, discussed the idea of a show based on the voices of those directly involved. “Grenfell was something the National Theater needed to tackle on the national stage. It was our responsibility to make sure their voices were heard,” Slovo said.
It took some time to get people to share their experiences. “They were traumatized and had to deal with their losses, experiences and housing needs. But gradually, with word of mouth, we began to find people willing to be interviewed. One person would hand me over to the other.
Slovo gave everyone involved assurances that they could read the transcripts of their interviews and veto anything they didn’t want included. He also invited them to a first reading of the work and to provide feedback.
She interviewed about 80 people in total, but ultimately focused on a “small core” of survivors and mourners. “It felt like such a responsibility to render their experiences accurately. Literally, there is no dialogue: you have to string together a series of monologues to tell a story.
Hanan Wahabi, who lost his home on the ninth floor of the tower, and whose brother and his entire family perished in the fire, is among those whose accounts feature in the play. “It’s important that what happened to us is not forgotten,” he said. “The National Theater is a platform that can tell our story.”
It wasn’t “easy” to relive her trauma, she said. “But lessons have to be learned and change has to happen. I want [the audience] come away knowing what happened was wrong, and still is, and I want them to ask, what can we do about it?
“People who go to the National Theater come from all walks of life and some of them have power. They can help. And if they can’t, they can go to someone who can. I want that domino effect.
The first two parts of the show will be played by professional actors including Ash Hunter, Houda Echouafni and Jackie Clune. Its creative directors are Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, who work with Slovo.
Half of the tickets for each show will be available for £20 or less, with 50 priced at £10 or less. People from North Kensington will be invited to watch the production for free.
The public inquiry into the Grenfell fire concluded in November after 400 days of trials. It is not expected to produce its final report until at least October, with criminal charges expected to follow.
“There’s still anger and frustration, but also exhaustion,” Wahabi said. “We are tired of waiting. We feel stuck, frozen in time.”
Slovo said he had “no doubts that the comedy would be gripping because the story is gripping. They are fantastic and generous people and I feel honored to have known them”.