Sunday, June 26, 2022

‘A Catalog of Greed, Deceit and Lying’: What I learned doing a play about Grenfell

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Ahead of the five-year anniversary of the wildfire that killed 72 people, Richard Norton-Taylor shares how his play, based on the spoken words of real people, exposes abuse and wrongdoing in the age of cover-ups

Last year he performed at the Tabernacle Theater in Notting Hill, London and later at the Birmingham Rep. value engineering will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday and Monday evenings, ahead of the five-year anniversary of the devastating, avoidable fire that killed 72 people.

The key attraction of literal theatre, said playwright Robin Soans, is that the audience knows “they are not being lied to”. Based on the spoken words of real people, it seemed like the perfect shape for my game, Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry. Composed solely of excerpts from evidence submitted under oath to the inquest, it provides a platform from which to shed light on the context and causes of abuse and wrongdoing in an age of cover-ups, fuss and short attention spans.

The play consists of the moving, harrowing, often shocking testimonies of bereaved and survivors, testimonies from companies responsible for the tower’s renovation, and testimonies from employees of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea responsible for the building’s maintenance .

Value engineering is a term that traditionally refers to a process that aims to achieve the best, most efficient value for money using the most appropriate materials. In the Grenfell context, it became a euphemism for cutting costs at the expense of safety.

When Nicolas Kent, the theater director with whom I had worked on seven previous direct plays, asked me to adapt one about the Grenfell Fire, I responded enthusiastically. It was in early 2020, nearly two years after the inquiry, chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, began hearing evidence. The investigation had already uncovered shocking evidence of the circumstances that led to the fire.

Using the investigation’s website, I researched evidence I had overlooked. Then, when I started attending the hearings, the first Covid lockdown happened. The hearings have been suspended. However, the chairman of the inquiry decided to hold remote hearings with witnesses appearing via the Zoom video link until restrictions are gradually lifted.

As I began editing and keeping up with the ongoing investigation, Nicolas began casting actors, encouraging them to attend hearings or see them remotely via video links. We were helped informally by relatives of some of those who died in the fire and surviving residents who had formed support groups including Grenfell United. While the play reconstructs the request, the names, age, gender, relationships, and floor and apartment numbers of some of those mentioned have been anonymized to protect their privacy.

The inquest had heard deeply disturbing evidence: the sheer horror of the fire that consumed Grenfell Tower in less than 30 minutes, the London Fire Brigade’s inability to cope, the delay in abandoning their traditional ‘stay in place’ “-Advice. The evidence showed that local residents had repeatedly warned staff from Kensington and Chelsea Borough about the tower’s poor condition, fire doors in need of repair, non-functioning elevators, lack of sprinkler systems and adequate emergency stairways.

The inquest found many of the coroner’s recommendations when examining six people killed in a 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, and evidence of other fires around the world caused by similar combustible linings , were ignored. covered up or not passed on to authorities or construction and rehabilitation companies.

It was then heard as repeated concerns from residents about the condition of the building were dismissed by district officials, sometimes accompanied by derogatory personal comments. Residents came from diverse backgrounds and a significant number were disabled. In the piece I include evidence from Leslie Thomas QC, who told the Inquiry: “The victims come from a culturally, racially, ethnically, religiously and economically diverse group… the community affected was overwhelmingly working class. The majority of the people who died were people of color.”

The piece focuses on the evidence after the presiding officer noted during the early stages of the inquiry that the Grenfell Tower fire was spreading rapidly due to the cladding of highly flammable aluminum composite (ACM) around the building, a cladding whose cladding companies are responsible for the rehabilitate the tower, endanger should be known and in some cases also.

What emerges from the investigation is an extraordinary catalog of greed, fraud, fraud, lies, incompetence, unaccountable private companies and officials, and practices later described by a young corporate executive as “completely unethical.”

Recent evidence has confirmed that Whitehall officials, ministers and their expert advisors on residential security requirements have been heavily influenced by the government’s austerity and ‘deregulation’ policies.

The Grenfell disaster, Leslie Thomas told the inquiry, “happened in a town where there is one housing system for the rich and another housing system for the poor. This political, social and economic context cannot be ignored or brushed aside… Nor can it be decoupled from race in a context where people of color are disproportionately likely to be poor and live in public housing.”

The fire is still having a serious and direct impact on many thousands of renters and leaseholders who are completely unaware that their homes were lined with similarly dangerous material. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Secretary now responsible for housing, came to the play and praised it. It may even have influenced him as he confronts construction companies and the Treasury with the lessons of the fire and how they are being learned.

To quote another playwright, David Hare once said that literal theater “does what journalism cannot”. The Grenfell play and the response to it reinforced my belief in theater recording words spoken in real life by real people. It contextualizes and explains events that may be familiar but are far from fully understood.

The play is about more than the specific circumstances of the fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower that summer’s night, Britain’s deadliest residential fire since the Blitz. As Thomas found out, the fire did not start in a vacuum. “It wasn’t just a local tragedy for west London. It had and continues to have national and global repercussions.” Five years later, the world is still reeling.

Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick is expected to deliver his final report next year.

Grenfell can be seen on Channel 4 and All 4 on Sunday 12 June at 10:30pm

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