“I remember my knees giving way, thinking, ‘This is it now,’ because I cannot take another breath.”
On Monday night, the actor Ash Hunter stood onstage at London’s National Theater portraying Nicholas Burton, one of almost 300 people who, six years ago, found themselves trapped inside a burning London apartment block. Hunter spoke Burton’s own words.
“Every breath was just hot black smoke,” the actor said, visibly sweating and breathing quickly.
On June 14, 2017, a refrigerator caught fire in a 24-story London high rise called Grenfell Tower. That blaze should have been easily contained, and residents were advised to stay in their apartments. But within minutes, flames had engulfed the structure, which lax building regulations had allowed to be clad in a flammable material. It became Britain’s deadliest fire in more than a century.
That night, Hunter said in the play, Burton fell asleep while watching a DVD, near his wife, Pily, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He woke to banging on his front door, which he opened, causing thick smoke to billow into the room. Burton knew he couldn’t carry his wife down dozens of flights of stairs, so he took her into the bathroom, where they waited for help.
Burton thought he was going to die, Hunter said onstage. Later, his wife did, becoming the fire’s 72nd, and final, victim.
Burton is one of 10 Grenfell residents whose stories are told in Gillian Slovo’s “Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors,” a verbatim play running through Aug. 26 at the National, one of Britain’s most significant playhouses. On Monday, some audience members shook their heads as they listened to the survivors’ experiences and the catalog of mismanagement that led to the blaze. Others were in tears at the end of the minimally staged production.
Years after the fire, Grenfell continues to cast a shadow over British life. Most of the units in Grenfell Tower were a part of Britain’s social housing system and the blaze drew attention to neglect within that system and to unsafe building practices across the country. An official inquiry into the blaze is ongoing, as is a police investigation.
With so little resolution for the bereaved, some of Britain’s major cultural institutions and artists have started making works about the tragedy. In addition to the National Theater’s production, the BBC earlier this year announced plans for a TV drama about the fire, and in April, the artist and director Steve McQueen presented a 24-minute video work at London’s Serpentine Galleries. Filmed using a helicopter, McQueen’s “Grenfell” shows the burned tower block as it stood in December 2017, days before it was hidden behind white plastic sheeting.
“I was determined that it would never be forgotten,” McQueen said in a statement accompanying the piece.
Survivors of the tragedy and local residents have had mixed responses to these projects. Shortly after the BBC’s TV drama was announced, Cecilia Corzo, a resident of the housing project that includes Grenfell Tower, started an online petition calling for the show to be canceled. The petition has more than 61,000 signatures.
Corzo wrote in an email interview that she found the idea of anyone wanting to watch a dramatization of the fire “overwhelmingly disgusting.” Survivors have been waiting years for justice, she wrote, and in that time “the only thing that seems to be moving quickly is plans to make entertainment” from the tragedy.
Slovo, the playwright, said in a recent interview at the theater that she understood such reactions, but hoped the play’s critics would “come and see what we’ve done.” Her aim was to “amplify” survivors’ voices, Slovo said, adding that the fire was an important example of how governments and businesses were “putting profit over people’s lives.” Grenfell “stands as a lesson to us all, not just in Britain,” she said.
Slovo, a South African-born playwright who has made several previous verbatim plays including one about British riots, began work on “Grenfell” six months after the fire. She said she was shocked that the blaze could happen in a city as rich as London, and by how the survivors’ voices were missing from most media coverage and official discussion of the tragedy. Instead, tabloids were filled with uninformed theories or articles portraying the bereaved as “poor, or as asylum seekers,” Slovo said.
Over several years, Slovo conducted around 80 interviews, sending survivors their transcripts so they could remove anything they didn’t want performed onstage. She bolstered those interviews with transcripts from the official government inquiry.
Turning that material into the play had its challenges, Slovo said, including “not wanting to turn this into a melodrama in any way” and making sure the play wasn’t traumatizing.
To try to guarantee that, “Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors” is being performed in unusual conditions. The production opens with the house lights up and the actors introducing themselves and the survivor each is portraying. The cast then reassures the audience that the play won’t include any images of the actual fire and that theatergoers are free to leave the auditorium at any point and return when they’re ready. During previews, therapists sat in the audience to provide additional support.
Pearl Mackie, who portrays Natasha Elcock, a woman who used bath water to extinguish flames and lost her uncle in the blaze, said she was angry at the horror of the event before reading the script. Even after being cast, Mackie said, she “worried that my own personal reaction was something that would come across every night, and it wouldn’t be serving the truth of the person I’m playing.”
After meeting Elcock, though, Mackie said she realized she could depict the community onstage in full, rather than defining Elcock by this one tragedy. The play is “the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Mackie said.
All the survivors portrayed have been invited to see the play, and some have done so. Ed Daffarn, who lived on the 16th floor, said in a recent interview that he couldn’t find the words to describe how he felt while watching it. “Almost as a defense, I kind of distanced myself,” he said.
He knew other survivors couldn’t bring themselves to go, Daffarn added, but he insisted that the play, and other creative Grenfell projects, were vital to keeping the tragedy in the public consciousness. Homes across England were still encased by flammable cladding, Daffarn said, adding “we haven’t had a single clink of handcuffs.”
At the end of Monday night’s performance, a short film was shown featuring survivors and bereaved family members — including Burton — discussing their lives today, and what they wanted the audience to take from the play.
The cast then gave audience members placards shaped like green hearts — a symbol that’s associated with Grenfell — with words like “Justice” written across them, and asked everyone to follow them outside.
Silently, the audience did as asked: Hundreds of people carrying those placards high into the London night. For a moment, the evening became more than theater. It became a call for change.