There’s a great sense of a raging autonomous war with a free will of its own in Operation Crucible.
Four ardent and innocent seeming young men work in the ‘crucible’ furnaces in one of Sheffield’s steel factories during the Second World War. The war has a presence at the edge of their consciousnesses, felt through repeated air raid warnings, avoided call ups and memories of fathers in the First World War, but it does not impact directly on their lives, loves, hopes and desires. Their work in the munitions factory is made to look beautiful, but functional and necessary. Workers Arthur, Bob, Tommy and Phil almost dance a mechanical ballet in their subterranean cellars as they operate the forging presses with, it must be thought, the same level of commitment and collaboration as the men above them in their German Heinkels or Junkers operating within a barbaric ideology, who have come to take out the ‘City of Steel’.
Based on real events that took place on the night of December 12th 1940, when German bombers, lost in the smog created by the industry’s own chimneys perhaps, mistook Sheffield’s centre for the flatlands of the River Don and bombed it to bits, the four young men find themselves trapped in another kind of subterranean cellar as they attempt to rescue guests from the collapsed and burning exclusive Marples Hotel.
Directed by Bryony Shanahan, the production is great at contrasting the control the men hold over their tools in the factory – “it’s magic lads” – with their lack of power against the more ‘metalized’ identity-extinguishing soldiers showering bombs down on them from above. Similarly, Kieran Knowles’ writing, made sharp with the barbarous humour of the Yorkshire men as they jokingly swap jibes (“She was like a film star.” “Aye, King Kong”) also has a poetic almost streams of consciousness quality:“I’m running and I see smoke rising over’t city. The light’s blinding but it’s not bright just grey.” This helps externalise their individual experiences of war.
But it’s not just the breakdown of boundaries between man and machine and man and language which are explored here; social boundaries are also blurred as the men enter the Marples hotel, a place that “were right posh” and where “you don’t get the likes of me in there” to try warn the partying upper classes that “people are dying and you’re sat here eating.” All that happens is that the men end up trapped for their selfless actions, with the party goers “giving us funny looks, as if we’d ruined their evening”.
“Metal and steel offer the utopian iconography of fascist discourse on war” writes Walter Benjamin in The Aesthetics of Power. Destruction in war and art, is used to create beauty. The play seems to start with this concept: the sounds of the bombers, the mechanical processes in the steel works, the light and heat of the furnaces, but moves on to disassociate man from that kind of beauty. Arthur, Bob, Tommy and Phil all begin the play as if they are not really real: their costumes too clean and avant-garde, as if part of a Russian Socialist propaganda poster, rather than steel workers in a factory. By its end, emancipated from all machines, dogma and even, for a short time, bureaucracy, they are made into men again – men who nearly lose their lives.
The play – which features some great ensemble work from the cast – imagines what it must have been like for the men and women who were trapped in the hotel on that night; it also asks other questions: what was the real war for these men? What kind of liberation can occur, for whom and for how long, as a result? Will these men now wish to return to their jobs at the factories or might they have suffered individual epiphanies that will change them forever? How has each one’s relationship to the machine now changed? There might not be answers, but one thing is made clear, man and machine and moral responsibility are inextricably linked.