"Hearts of Steel"
Operation Crucible was the German code name for the Sheffield Blitz, which devastated much of Sheffield, England, on December 12, 1940. Among the worst casualties inflicted on this South Yorkshire industrial city was the Marples Hotel, on the corner of Fitzalan Square and High Street. Hit by a German high explosive bomb at 11:44 p.m., the seven-story building collapsed, killing all but seven of its 77 occupants.
Operation Crucible, a play by Kieran Knowles based on the event, premiered in 2015 at London’s Finborough Theatre and is part of this year’s Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. It revisits the tragedy through the story of four men who, at least as imagined here, found themselves trapped in the hotel’s basement, where they had taken shelter as they returned home from the steel mill that employed them.
|Salvatore D'Aquila, James Wallwork, Christopher McCurry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Judging from a well-illustrated account of the incident (and a list of its survivors) that can be found here, Knowles’s quartet of survivors appears to be fictional even though the details of their suffering are true enough to what the actual survivors went through.
|Salvatore D'Aquila, James Wallwork, Christopher McCurry, Kieran Knowles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Then again, Operation Crucible, despite its true-life inspiration, is anything but a docudrama. Instead, it’s more of what might be called a choreopoetic response to the bombing during which the hotel itself doesn’t appear until more than halfway through.
|Front Kieran Knowles, James Wallwork; rear: Salvatore D'Aquila, Christopher McCurry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Just as important as its words is the inventively choreographic direction of Bryony Shanahan, who gives it a high-intensity performance in which each word, gesture, and activity is precisely calibrated. Aiding the visual impression is a minimalist scenic background designed by Sophia Simensky, constantly shifting shafts of light by Seth Rook Williams, and a ripping sound score created by Dan Foxsmith, with effects that make it feel like the theatre itself is about to fall.
|Kieran Knowles, James Wallwork. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The play’s first half introduces the four men—Arthur (James Wallwork), Bob (Salvatore D’Aquilla), Tommy (Kieran Knowles, the playwright), and Phil (Paul Pinto)—at work in the steel mill. Their jobs may be difficult, dangerous, and exhausting, but they find them purposeful, fulfilling, and bonding. Still, with a war going on, we sense a bit of manly guilt because of the protected status of steelworkers that makes them exempt from conscription.
|Kieran Knowles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
As the men—speaking in bursts of rapid, driving language, some of it in the first person, some in dialogue—mime the aggressively rhythmic nature of their tasks, there’s an occasional abrupt time shift. Given the fractured nature of the narrative, these aren’t always clear. Some appear to hint at what the night holds in store, others to a time years later, when the characters are recalling what happened in 1940.
We learn of the pride in what they do, the responsibilities and rigors of their jobs, the accidents they’ve endured, the friendly hazing handed young newcomers, their competition with women workers, and the teamwork they rely on. We also pick up bits about their domestic lives, their dads, their kids, their romances,and their football ardor, with references to blackout blinds, nightly planes overhead, food shortages and queues, shelters, and so on.
Finally, we watch and listen to the men’s travails, seasoned with sentimental memories, as they wait for over a dozen hours to be rescued under the Marple’s rubble.
Operation Crucible succeeds in creating a strong sense of localized male camaraderie, stoicism in the face of danger, bravery, and anger under stress. As performed, however, it tends to be more theatrical than dramatic. Long passages in the dark or near-darkness, where we hear voices but don’t see their speakers, offer opportunities to doze.
|Kieran Knowles, Christopher McCurry, Salvatore D'Aquila, James Wallwork. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The characters—dressed uniformly by Simensky in white shirts, gray slacks and vests, with scarf-like towels—are easier to differentiate by their faces and sizes than by their personalities; apparent in the writing, these tend to get buried in the performance, where everyone speaks with the same thick Yorkshire accent at the same high volume.
|Kieran Knowles, Salvatore D'Aquila, James Wallwork, Christopher McCurry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Much as the excellent ensemble is to be applauded, its relentlessly energetic vocal and physical realization of Shanahan’s demands gradually wears thin. If Operation Crucible were any longer than its intermissionless hour and 20 minutes I think I’d have begun feeling almost as trapped in my seat as those four men do in their basement refuge.
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 3