By Bob Shuman

In the disaster that ensued (Grenfell: in the Words of Survivors, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse until May 12), a Syrian man, a disabled man, who in this production is played by a disabled actor, using crutches, waited five minutes next to his front door to see if someone would come to help him: “There was smoke coming, so I decided to use the stairs like everyone else thinking that maybe . . . someone would help.  I was horrified to see that the residents were running at lightning speed.”  That is the human dilemma at the center of Gillian Slovo’s powerful, direct, unmelodramatic, verbatim drama, from Britain’s National Theatre, which transcends nations, nationalities, and boundaries – the idea of how far people are willing to go, or not, to help one another. The play is an examination of the “crack,” the fissure being discussed in the compound term “falling between the cracks,” alluding to those who want to help and can help, as well as to the disjunction between what social services and corporations can do for constituents, in industrialized countries, as well as what our own neighbors can provide, and where they stop.

For those who do not know about London’s high-rise apartment complex, which Americans would recognize as “projects,” and which happened to stand in an area of wealth and affluence, perhaps equivalent, in terms of income for many residents, to zip codes where New York’s Trump Tower stands or Barbra Streisand’s Malibu enclave tans, what happened on June 14, 2017 is a multifaceted story about a badly doctored eyesore and a fire.  The interests, with stakes in such a catastrophic failure, range from those of corporations, politicians, suppliers, and the residents in the Grenville Tower themselves; often the latter being  English-as-a-second language speakers, brown skinned, working, lower, and middle class renters (and those who bought their apartments), dealing with outsized tenant issues that, nevertheless, would be understood by most rent stabilized, or not, apartment dwellers, or owners, as well, in New York and elsewhere.  These concerns include threatening building management, unacceptable fixtures and appliances, and irresponsible maintenance.  A tinderbox in a gilded world, after a botched refurbishment, might be a metaphor for the destruction or better, as one resident described it, the handicapped resident, actually:  it looked as “if you’d taken a cup and covered it in gold.  The cover is better, but that’s all.”

What is intriguing, turning from the historical and civic realities to the way the devastation has been rendered artistically, is the highly original theatre-making that the directors, Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike and their production teams have employed, reframing all the ephemera, the debris, the fragments of lost life and personal memory and distilling them into eleven brown, mundane storage boxes (the kind you might buy at Staples).  Thinking creatively, all of the remnant, singed and unrecoverable, smoking, torched, literally, drenched effects of innumerable memories, past ownership, family, dreams, pride, and what was obtained by struggle, distilled into a set of containers, with UPC codes, that become a symbolic, clinicalized setting and its properties.  The minimalism, together with projected photos, interviews and video design (Akhila Krishnan) and film (TEA Films), lighting (Azusa Ono), sound design and effects (Donato Wharton), set and costumes (Georgia Lowe), video clips, documentation—is brutalist, externalized, objectivized, and material.  The spare, icy music (Benjamin Kwasi Burell) is made up of only a few chords.  Grenfell is austere and postmodern, Brechtian, ensuring that viewers are analyzing, accumulating rational, critical thinking, instead of being emotionally drawn in, or, because of the subject matter, overwhelmed. 

Verbatim is a documentary style of drama used infrequently here in the States, perhaps best known to us through the work of Anna Deavere Smith. Viewers do not decide whether the accumulating data makes a character believable or whether the interpretation is “close enough” to reality or the assumptions of an imagined world; it’s blunter than that.  The character is believable because imaginative language is expelled: these are the actual words someone spoke—and because of the challenges of dramatic and literary form, it is exciting when the work, in all its hardness and inelegance and everyday banality, coalesces into an urgent living picture.

Actors are not breaking the fourth wall to enhance a fantasy:  They are part of a real confrontation.   Judge them at your own peril.  Their points of view are not examples of a commonly held belief, which evaporate as soon as we leave the theatre. It is his or her point of view, it is on record, it is part of the historical facts, and it goes with them into the harsh light of day.  Their words are evidence that can be acted upon. The cast, which makes minor costume adjustments, and who are working, at the state-of-the-art St. Ann’s Warehouse, in the round, in the aisles, on the stairs, and with and on their boxes, intensely for over three hours,  are not only excellent because their dictions, accents (Hazel Holder), movement (Chi-San Howard), and behavior  correspond to real people from various countries—they do not even seem to be acting. How would one expect to see these characters played in other ways? The picture does not need to be photoshopped.  Their names are:  Joe Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Hounda Echouafni, Mona Goodwin, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Cominique Tipper, and Nahel Tzegai.

Some of the thoughts that have remained with this reviewer are the following:  how far will people, companies, and governments go to help in communities, in situations far less urgent and dramatic than the ones presented in Grenfell, before they cry “every man for himself” and “abandon ship” or simply throw up their hands?  Or, is the point of abandonment a matter of instinct and human nature?  Importantly, too, has it changed over time?—do people give up earlier now in situations or on each other in life or in extreme situations?  Is the focus more or less than in the past, and is there even a way to ascertain that?  Importantly, especially regarding this drama: can dereliction be traced to accents or race? The Grenfell fire happened seven years ago, and actually, with regard to reparations, and people who lost everything, that is a long time. It is reassuring that the event  has been memorialized, but actually, politicians, who knew the problems with the building design, before the fire ever happened, have, to this day, not been held accountable, as likewise, have companies involved with the building construction.  Grenfell is a problem, which many hope will go away, maybe with time, but that is the point.  Have we become desensitized to modern life and what human beings need and should actually expect?  Or has media normalized us to starving children and brutal attacks, mass destruction and a world of fire, actually addicting us to violent stories that disappear as news and new cycles change?

The Grenfell story is ongoing . . .

© by Bob Shuman

Tickets for Grenfell: in the words of survivors are on sale now and can be purchased at Performances take place April 13, 16–20, 23–27, & 30 and May 1–4, 7–11 at 7:30; April 14, 21, 28, and May 5 & 12 at 5pm; and April 20 & 27, and May 4 & 11 at 2pm.

The production opened on Sunday, April 21.

Photos: Teddy Wolff

Press: Blake Zidell

Note:  For transparency, Bob Shuman helped compile a drama collection, entitled Acts of War:  Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays (Northwestern University Press), one of which was written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo: Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.”  


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