After a sell-out run in 2016, Operation Crucible returns to open the new season at the Crucible Studio. In the years since it was last staged in Sheffield, the play has travelled to New York. It was scheduled to return to the Crucible in 2020 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz, but due to Covid-19 was postponed to September 2021.
In anticipation of its return to Sheffield, we dug out our interview with Operation Crucible’s writer Kieran Knowles from the time of the play’s first run here in 2016.
Though it’s to be performed in the Crucible Studio, Operation Crucible is in fact little to do with its namesake theatre. Rather, the play details the true story of four men who were trapped in the basement of the Marples Hotel on the night of 12 December 1940, the first night of what has since come to be known as the Sheffield Blitz. The Nazi codename for the operation was Schmelztiegel, meaning Crucible. As the building above is reduced to rubble, below ground, the claustrophobic one-room setting seems ideal for dramatic yet human storytelling. There is more than a small amount of poetic circularity in this story being brought to the stage not five minutes’ walk from the location of the former Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square.
Kieran Knowles devised the play with its other leads, Paul Tinto, Simon Wallwork and Salvatore d'Aquilla. He says they were drawn to representing a time of industrial success as opposed to decline, going against the more common tropes in northern period pieces. Despite Operation Crucible’s tragic wartime context, Knowles promises a "Sheffield in its prime." As for the specific story of the Marples Hotel bombing, they tried to be as faithful as possible to the events of the Sheffield Blitz, speaking to living witnesses of two nights that became a historical synonym for "carpet bombing". The facts are startling enough without theatrical flourishes: over 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured and 40,000 made homeless.
As Knowles says, though, you can do all the research in the world and there still comes a point at which you "need to write the play." He describes the frustration of, as an actor, sitting in and waiting for the phone to ring, while also feeling that creating anything of his own was a "pie in the sky" ambition. However, something about the Operation Crucible story struck a creative chord. The group all trained together and have a strong working relationship. This, combined with a very real emotional engagement with the story, is how the play came to exist. "The responsibility of having written every word," Knowles says, is something of an added pressure, unique to those who both write and perform in a play. With such a level of accountability, Knowles is truly invested in the project.
The play has been performed all over the country before reaching its historical birthplace. Knowles can't overstate significance of this: it will undoubtedly "strike home a lot harder than when performed in Colchester." The overriding message from our conversation is that Operation Crucible is a human story. It places emphasis not on the conventional heroes of war, but on the sort of people who "made bombs, not dropped them." Knowles says that the names Hitler and Churchill are not uttered once in the play; the wider political story is secondary here to the small-scale interpersonal ones, which we will soon be able to see played out in the most fitting of locations.
- Words by
- Lucy Holt
- Featured in
- Theatre picks