A new play describes extracts from the Grenfell Tower fire investigation
Tit’s a sight he knows A small platform faces rows of seats, with desks full of administrative work: laptops, files and water bottles. A projector screen in the corner is showing a PowerPoint slide. After the drama of scandal or the agony of tragedy, it is this kind of restrained situation that hosts the intense work of public inquiry, many of which are now milestones in British history: The Chilcot Inquiry into war Iraq; Leveson inquiry into journalists picking up the phone.
In this case, some things are a little different. The room is a large Victorian auditorium; the journalists in the front rows are theater critics, not political correspondents; several of the audience are holding glasses of wine. Actors play the suitable lawyers and witnesses, but it’s not quite right to call this a play. It’s a theatrical production – or, perhaps, a re-production – using transcripts from the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people.
Nicolas Kent, the director, and Richard Norton-Taylor, the editor, have produced similar “verbatim” presentations based on public inquiries, but this is the first to be staged during while the investigation is still going on, lending him an immediate boost with the investigation. So close to the Tabernacle theater on London’s Grenfell site. Stages of historical events usually have a degree of artistic license. But this is verbatim in the strictest sense: the only edition is abbreviated, and the staging is completely mimetic, allowing the transcripts to speak for themselves.
Inquiries, says Mr Kent, offer a ready-made narrative structure. “They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Legal settings have much in common with theatrical ones: both have an audience, a cast of characters who come in and out, and the hope of a satisfying resolution. But can the months of research research be successfully converted into two hours of traffic on the platform?
“Value Engineering” does not shy away from detail and difficulty. The published playbook includes a glossary of terms, from polyisocyanurate (burnable foam insulation) to acm and Rs5000 (two types of outer cover panel). Mr Norton-Taylor has said he could “get a PhD in cover studies” after editing the transcripts. Of course, that complexity is part of the story of what went wrong before the fire. Byzantine networks of contractors and subcontractors contributed to the tower’s renovation with unsafe materials, each of them assuming that someone else had done the safety checks.
Played by Ron Cook, Richard Millett etc, leads a consultant to the investigation, slowly peeling away the mass of detail and chaos to reveal the truth underneath. Contractors cut corners and pocket the savings. It’s a kind of humdrum wickedness, spelled out in the bureaucratic series of weekday email exchanges (“lots of grass asses!” one chirpily signs off). As well as clarifying the events leading up to the accident, the inquiry closes in on missing links in the subsequent lines of evidence. Notebooks with minutes of relevant meetings are missing. “I think I messed up my desk,” the witness says.
Amidst all the details, this production does not lose sight of the horror of the night of the fire itself, or of the wider issues it revealed. The audience will hear accounts from firefighters who were unprepared for the disaster they faced, and from advocates representing those who lost their lives and those who survived. Their opening speeches, varied throughout, blame social factors and discrimination for neglecting the residents of Grenfell. One says James Baldwin: “Ask any black man, any poor man, ask the miserable people how they are doing in the halls of justice, and then you will know whether a country is just or not.” isn’t it.” Almost casually, the characters also read extracts from a letter sent by one resident to the local authority in 2010, bemoaning the state of the building’s fire safety provisions, and warning that “if another fire happens, the whole building can become an inferno. .”
Transferring these materials to a theatrical context is a delicate and ethically challenging business. Mr Kent says some names and details of victims and survivors have been changed. (The identity of the witnesses, on the other hand, is a public matter.) The investigative sessions are available online, but it is reasonable to assume that only a small audience will watch them. Anyway, Mr. Kent believes, “the general nature of audiences is very good at exploring political questions.” When he was hosting the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, one actor played a racist police officer “almost that he could not finish his sentences, because [the audience] they just beat him.”
Certainly, the shock and excitement of the audience is as much a part of “The Value of Engineering” as anything that happens on stage. Mr Kent hopes that this type of public accounting could be an antidote to the erosion of trust in institutions. “I hate, hate the idea that we operate in a post-truth world,” he complains. “Bring back the truth.” ■
“Grenfell: Value Engineering” continues at the Tabernacle Theatre, London, until 13 November. It will be performed at Birmingham Repertory between November 16th and 20th