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In Operation Crucible, four men try to survive the Sheffield Blitz
When Kieran Knowles and his LAMDA drama school buddies couldn't get work, he decided to write a play for them to star in. Six years later, most of the friends are still touring in Operation Crucible, which is currently running at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. Their camaraderie is palpable in this harrowing four-character drama set during the Sheffield Blitz on December 12, 1940, when German air raids killed hundreds of residents. Steelworkers Tommy (Knowles), Bob (Salvatore D'Aquila), Arthur (James Wallwork) and Phil (Christopher McCurry, the newest cast member) seek shelter in the basement of the Marples Hotel, but when it collapses, they find themselves buried alive.
While the events are historically accurate, the characters are fictional. Yet Knowles, who grew up in Northern England, says their personalities are inspired by real people, especially his own grandfather. Like many Englishmen who survived World War II, Knowles' grandpa was tight-lipped about his disturbing experiences. When he did recount an anecdote from that time, he wouldn't do it all at once; he'd disclose a line or two, and then three weeks would pass before he continued.
Knowles wanted his script to reflect that taciturn quality, so he has the characters routinely finish each other's sentences, as if they can't get through the tale alone. Although they all emerge as individuals with their own wants and worries, they are also interdependent: as steelworkers, as friends and as survivors. "My idea was to try to weave a story between them, so you don't necessarily find out all the information immediately, but piecemeal," Knowles explains. "I always called it a one-man show told by four people because if you watched any one of those stories, it would be incomplete -- they need each other to tell the rest of it."
Just like Knowles needed his pals to do this project. The idea was hatched around a pub table with a blank piece of paper and a desire to put something new onstage. They knew they wanted a narrative that celebrated blue-collar workers. After some online research, Knowles learned about the destruction of the Marples Hotel, where approximately 70 victims died and a handful of survivors were pulled from the wreckage. Through an internet forum, he was able to track down and interview two steelworkers who were in Sheffield (though not in the Marples Hotel) that night, which helped inform the characters. Not only did they share obscure details about the tragedy, they also schooled the playwright in the process and jargon of steel manufacturing.
Both men have since died, which means Knowles was able to preserve this little-known history before all those who were there passed on. "No one actually talks about it, even in the city," he says. "The spot where the hotel used to stand, it doesn't have a plaque on it. There's no sort of acknowledgement that nearly 70 people lost their lives there one night."
Operation Crucible premiered at London's Finborough Theatre in 2013, and went on to play multiple U.K. venues, including a run in Sheffield. This marks the show's U.S. debut, but Knowles and director Bryony Shanahan haven't adjusted the production for American audiences. Even the dense cultural slang is intact. But Knowles isn't worried. "In England we watch a lot of The Wire and don't need translations," he says. "I think it would be kind of patronizing to make the changes to the script because I think if you don't get the reference, you'll at least get the sentiment." Indeed, the sentiment that war is hell at any time, in any place rings through loud and clear.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Kieran Knowles, James Wallwork, Salvatore D'Aquilla and Christopher McCurry in Operation Crucible. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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