(Emma Brockes’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 4/29; Photo: Photograph: Teddy Wolff.)

As she takes the words of Grenfell Tower fire survivors to the New York stage, the playwright talks about being drawn to painful subjects, and the disaster’s worldwide relevance

The night I saw Grenfell, the play by Gillian Slovo based on interviews with survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a small but unprecedented response from the audience. On paper, Grenfell, which has transferred to New York after its successful run in London, is a tough sell to American theatregoers: the disaster wasn’t big news in the US and the play’s setting is peculiarly British. Towards the end of the play, however, when a survivor suggests the fire wasn’t caused by the system being broken but rather by the system performing exactly as built, the audience at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn broke into spontaneous applause. “We haven’t had that reaction before,” says Slovo.

The 72-year-old playwright and novelist is accustomed to chronicling failures in government and if the subject matter of Grenfell seemed, at first glance, more parochial than her verbatim plays about Guantánamo or Islamic State, it turned out to be deceptively so. The deaths in 2017 of 72 people in a west London tower block tell a universal story, not only about deregulation and corporate carelessness, but about double standards in government towards marginalised communities. Any American who can summon images of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – people left to fend for themselves; people shot at by police as they fled, or camped out on sidewalks – can understand immediately and viscerally what this play is about.

The playwright herself feels these issues particularly keenly after a lifetime considering imbalances of power. Slovo’s body of work, and her background as the child of two titans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, has perhaps given her a reputation as earnest. On the evidence of our interview that’s not the reality at all. At a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Slovo is quick to laugh and point out the sheer pleasure and privilege of learning about other people’s lives. Much has been made of the horror of the stories emanating from Grenfell; less remarked upon is how funny the play and its characters are. “We wanted an audience to understand that these are individuals with their own histories and way of being,” says Slovo. “To know what it is to be in a burning building and have to get out – you need to know who those people were, and a bit of their history.”

(Read more)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *