by Carole Di Tosti
In its US premiere as a part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, Operation Crucible tells a fateful story through a dynamic drama performed by four actors. Written by Kiernan Knowles and directed by Bryony Shanahan, an event little known to American audiences becomes memorialized. Vitally, the production reminds us of the uncertainty of life in times of war. Thematically, the production reveals how the knowledge of past experiences often prepares us for trials of great duress, though we cannot imagine such, as we enjoy our lives up to that moment of trial.
Knowles constructs his play’s action surrounding the cataclysm that occurred during World War II in Sheffield, England known as the Sheffield Blitz. The play begins and concludes with the experiences of four steel workers in the aftermath of the first of two German bombing raids in 1940 December. The raids known by the German code name “Crucible” were designed to destroy various steelworks and heavy industry in the Sheffield area in order to hobble the British war effort.
In fact, bombs were also dropped on residential areas and one in the city center made a direct hit on The Marples Hotel which crumbled from seven stories into fifteen feet of rubble. While 70 dead bodies were pulled out, Bob (Salvatore D’Aquilla), Tommy (Kieran Knowles), Arthur (James Wallwork) and Phil (Christopher McCurry) remained trapped in the only compartment in the hotel’s cellar that was not decimated. Knowles brings us into the heart of that dire event. He shows how these men call upon their own resilience as steelworkers and use their camaraderie and will to power to survive.
The actors evoke the portraits of these men with vitality. They hammer it out in the rhythms of their steelmaking. With their actions, they effect the tension and pressure of the blast furnace heat, and reveal the endurance required to move molten metal then pound it into strong beams. The actors create their own sound effects and rhythmic, repetitive movements (pantomime) to effectively reveal the incredible tension, pressure, heat of their work conditions. They finely underscore the prodigious effort required to perform steel making. Their exertions are beautifully executed. Each of their motions creates a picture of their operation, and their abilities and mental stamina.
Knowles shifts the action from the present in the cellar and flashes back to the past. From remembrances of better times, the men constantly take their strength as they reflect upon their actions at work. Also, they are able to remain calm through recalling humorous events. One example occurs when the men refer to incidents with Bob (the fine Salvatore D’Aquila) who as a neophyte is put through embarrassing trials until he becomes a bona fide colleague.
From these flashback vignettes, the men receive the courage to face the present darkness, stifling atmosphere and fear in the claustrophobic cellar after the bomb blast. The crucible metaphor is thrilling as the linchpin of the play. Surely, their experience as steelworkers has perfected them in the crucible of the factory’s operation. If they can accomplish their prodigious work with the blast furnace, they can confront the German’s “crucible.” The metaphor of their training in the crucible of heat and flames empowers them to make it until they hear the faint echoes of those above ground. Then they pound out “sounds” that they are alive (as they pounded out the steel). Like corpses being resurrected from a frightening grave, they’ve transformed the German’s crucible that intended to kill them and forged it into their soul’s perfection, through their will to live. Knowles’ metaphoric parallel is superb.
The direction and staging by Bryony Shanahan is flawlessly executed by the actors who work as a marvelous team. The actions of steel making, their pantomime, their accompanying calls, sounds and exertions are sublime in how they evoke the central metaphor. And it is that metaphor which reveals the themes of endurance through suffering and suffering as the crucible where some may be perfected.
Shanahan, Knowles, the ensemble and design team establish a memorable glimpse into the past and elevate a critical event to inspire us. Yet, they also reveal the horrors of a time that should be remembered in the hope of preventing such devastation in the future. The play’s currency cannot be understated and for that reason and its thrilling execution, it should be seen.
Operation Crucibleruns with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters (59E59 Street) until 3 June. For tickets call 212 -753-5959 or purchase online at http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=322