At the centre of a wider multi-year creative project in collaboration with the North Kensington communities affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Grenfell: in the words of survivors is a verbatim play dedicated to re-humanising the people who were bereaved by the fire and the subsequent media attention. Written by Gillian Slovo based on extensive conversations with survivors and loved ones affected by the tragedy, the play shares true stories and first-hand accounts, giving voice to those who for too long haven’t been granted any justice. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, it is told in three parts: before the tragedy, the night of the tragedy, and the continued effort for justice. The play accompanies a community engagement programme of initiatives with local organisations, including paid work placements, workshops for youth, and free theatre tickets.
The cast includes Pearl Mackie, a British actress who is known for her work in Doctor Who and Netflix’s political thriller, The Diplomat. Sitting down with Pearl on a terrace outside of the National Theatre, I hear about Grenfell: in the words of survivors: rehearsals, her hopes for the play, and how it feels to be involved with such an important and meaningful project.
Grenfell: in the words of survivors is on stage in the Dorfman theatre now until 26 August with half the tickets for every performance available at £20 or less.
Read the interview…
How was rehearsal today?
It’s good! We’re at the beginning of week four, so things are starting to take shape, which is really interesting. You know, obviously, it’s such a complex and nuanced subject matter. And it’s so sensitive, because we’re dealing with real people — the survivors who’ve contributed to our story, who’ve given their story to us to tell. There is a responsibility with trying to tell the story to acquire justice for the 72 people who lost their lives, and their families and all of the people who were left bereaved by this horrible tragedy that could have been easily prevented. So it’s not like any rehearsal room I’ve ever been in before.
We’re still managing to find moments of joy, which doesn’t feel like something we shouldn’t be doing. Having met some of the survivors, I mean, you can’t live with a tragedy every minute of every day, you have to continue to live. And essentially, that is what they’re trying to do. So that’s what the aim of this play is to allow them to have some justice so that they can move on with their lives. So yeah, the rehearsals are quite intense. But the company is wonderful. And I think everyone’s doing such a brilliant job. Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, the directors, are just brilliant, and really facilitate a close knit community within the room, which I think is really important, because we’re telling the story of a community. As much as it’s the story of a fire, what we’re trying to do is rehumanise the people who were completely dehumanised in the press after the fire, and illuminate what their lives were like beforehand. So, you know, we can draw parallels between our own lives, so that people can really understand the actual devastation and what was lost.
How did you first get involved?
I was asked to audition for it. I’m a Londoner and I remember when it happened. And just how unjust it felt at the time. And, you know, the fact that six years on there has still been no justice is enraging, really, and just sort of symbolic of capitalism and British society as a whole, to be honest. So it was something that I was like, this is too important a story not to tell. I think it’s certainly the most important job I’ve done in my career so far, I think it might be the most important job I ever do in my career. I don’t know. But I think, you know, I was like, this is not something I’m going to let pass by, I want to be able to be part of this.
So much research went into the play. How did that impact your preparation and was that level of research unique to the project?
Yeah it is, in a way. I mean, I’ve never played a real person before, let alone someone who’s done so much media. And also, you know, there’s testimony from the inquiry and also Gillian [Slovo], the writer, has interviewed all of the survivors obviously at length over a course of many, many years. She’s talked to them for hours and hours, so there’s all of that to listen to as well. Obviously that’s where the bits of our text have come from but there’s so much around that as well, which is amazing and really paints a picture of who she is. And even yeah, I mean there’s so much coverage and there’s so much information and there’s so much that exists on the internet that I didn’t even know. You can access the inquiry records online, so you can get everything.
Sometimes I have felt like, “I have to stop doing that now.” Because I could listen to it for months and months and months. It can get overwhelming. There’s recordings of 999 calls that were played in the inquiry, you know? What I think is great about the space that the National has created is that they have created a space where if we’re not feeling able to access it that day, because, you know, we all have lives and everyone comes into work from a different place, you know, so there’s some days where we’re like, “Okay, I don’t want to access those 999 calls today, for example.” And that’s the safe space. It feels really supported, which is great. And I think that sort of mirrors the work that the National are trying to do sort of in the wider North Kensington community — to not just do the play and then that’s it. Because that, again, is emblematic of capitalist society — being like, “Hey, we’ve helped and then we’re gone.” There’s a much wider programme of events and support. There’s festivals and work experience placements, and so much stuff that the National are doing with the community. I think it’s great, I think it is really important, and I feel really honoured to be part of a company that recognises the wider importance of all of that.
There are also discounts for residents of the North Kensington community as well, which is really important. Theatre can be expensive. Especially, I think over the past couple of years, it has gotten more expensive since COVID. So, I think a play like this that is about real people needs to be accessible to real people.
What do you hope people will take away from the play?
Firstly, what we want to do is bring it back into the public consciousness. Telling people about the play, they’re often like, “Oh, yeah, I remember where I was on when it happened.” And, you know, it really struck people at the time, but I think a lot of people have sort of let it fall by the wayside, and aren’t as actively involved in it. So I think bringing it back to the conversation, bringing it back to the table, being like, “No, the people who are responsible for all of these crimes still haven’t been brought to justice.” Whatever that justice looks like, no justice has been served. So I think our aim is to rehumanise the residents of Grenfell Tower, who were, you know, completely defamed by the tabloid press straight afterwards. It was real people. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect, care,and protection, and to live in a safe space. There were so many people who turned their backs on the many things that led to Grenfell not being a safe space and not meeting health and safety standards, who allowed this to happen. I just think we want to bring the conversation back to the table and build a wider community around it as well. One of the things that the woman I’m playing said was, “Even if it only provokes people to get to know their neighbours,” I think it’s about building a wider community that cares and respects each other. And I don’t know, I mean, I guess that just sort of equates to kindness, really, doesn’t it?
It’s so easy to look in and be like, “Oh, this is my world. And that’s something else completely that I don’t even really register.” And not seeing the parallels. Like we’re all the same. We’re all people who live in the world, we share the world. You walk down the same street as someone who might live in a billion pound house, but they should still care about the way that you’re treated and you should still care about the way that they’re treated.
You obviously can’t be invested in everything at all times, because you need to have time for yourself and your own family and your own job, but I do think that as human beings, we should care for our fellow human beings, and the way that they’re treated, essentially.
How do you balance that?
It is difficult. Honestly, walking home is quite helpful to me. Being able to have that time to get my brain to sort of get back into me mode. But I think, you know, again, there’s a lot of support in the room. We do check-ins and checkouts. There’s a lot of things that are set up in order to leave the character at work. Obviously, that is not always possible, because you have to do homework and research and learn your lines and all of that kind of stuff. But there’s a lot of things in place that are enabling us to have a lot of support, which is really nice. I don’t really know, how does anyone balance anything? It’s a lifelong struggle. I think it’s important to allow yourself to find joy in the things that you find joy in and be as present as you can in every moment. And that is hard when you’re thinking about a million other things. But that’s what I’ve been finding myself trying to do more recently, since I started this job — just allow myself to be in the situation that I’m in, in the moment. And just be like, “This is what I’m doing now,” and then, “Okay, I’ve done that. Let me do something else with my whole head and my whole heart.” And then move onto the next thing. Even if it’s just splitting time like that, I think that’s the only way I’m able to do it. Because otherwise, everything just bleeds into everything. And then you don’t end up doing anything successfully. Because your brain is scattered. So, yeah. And rest, sleep, lots of water, sunshine.
You’ve worked across so many different projects, and so many different mediums. What is the difference? Do you have a preference between working in theatre and film or TV?
They’re obviously such different mediums, but I feel like the end goal is always the same. What we’re trying to do is tell a story, whether that’s the story of a community that was ruined by this horrible tragedy, or whether that’s the story of a diplomat who comes to the US Embassy. Essentially, what our job is, what everyone who works in theatre and film’s job is, is to tell a story and to captivate an audience and to make them believe the story that we’re telling. I don’t think I prefer either. I wouldn’t want to only do just one or the other forever. I enjoy the balance. I think it keeps the brain fresh. I hadn’t done a play for a long time and it’s nice being back in the rehearsal room. I feel like it’s taken me a minute to be like, “Oh, yeah, this is what you do in a rehearsal room.” You can be like, “I can offer something” and then be like, “Oh, no, that is shit. Let’s not do that.” But on a film set sometimes you don’t have time to do that. But then the kind of immediacy of film is so exciting — being like, “Let me bring this offer,” and then respond to a direction and keep the intensity for however many camera angles, and however long you’re shooting that scene, and then let it go. I feel like that’s kind of magic as well. I think I like them both for different reasons. But also for the same reason.