The Crucible - Sheffield's landmark theatre and a national icon

Do you have something you’ve been saving to provide relief in a moment of lockdown extremis?

The Crucible's artistic director Robert Hastie. (Picture: James Hardisty).

A particular bar of chocolate, a bottle of whisky, a book, a film? A magical talisman you’ve picked up and considered consuming and thought ‘no, I can defer my gratification just a little longer, until I really need this’ and then returned it to a safe place until you really need it in a global pandemic?

Sheffield Crucible is my ‘break in case of emergencies’ lockdown-go-to that I’m breaking now.

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For the past, how long has it been since lockdown began? (It feels like a year). However long since that fateful announcement I’ve been taking you on a virtual tour of Yorkshire’s theatres, ‘interviewing’ venues remembering experiences past and talking to the people in charge at present.

Ralph Little in Richard Beans play The Nap, at the Crucible. (Picture: Mark Douet).

The Sheffield Crucible was always going to be a special one, one to savour.

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Perhaps because I grew up, and remain, a West Yorkshire boy, the Sheffield Crucible always seemed a far away place.

Perhaps it is something to do with the magic in the fabric of the seats, which you sit in knowing they’ve been screened around the world when that great unwritten theatre, the annual World Snooker Championships, comes to town.

Richard Hawley and playwright Chris Bush who collaborated on the musical Standing at the Sky's Edge. (Chris Etchells).

Maybe it’s just the magical ceiling lights that twinkle like a clear night with so many stars, but there is no denying, and I say this with all love to the other venues in our region, there is something special about the Crucible.

Shortly before lockdown I wrote a feature about Sheffield Theatres for The Yorkshire Post weekend magazine.

It deserved the recognition after a ludicrously successful period over the past few years, but there is so much more to say about the theatre that I have no fears about repeating myself here (or recommending you read that online as a companion piece to this).

As I wrote in that article, some of the magic of the Crucible is in the design of the place. Echoing ancient amphitheatres in shape, it is a perfect bowl that allows performers to say to the audience ‘come here and let me tell you a story’.

Robert Hastie, the man who holds the coveted mantle of artistic director, misses the place.

“Right from the start the Crucible was a controversial endeavour. We’re defined by a spirit of adventure, thrust theatre was a bold departure from the kind of spaces people were familiar with and the original artistic director had to overcome a lot of opposition and suspicion,” says Hastie, aware that he, as well as we, are recipients of a boldness in attitude manifest several decades ago.

“When you walk in you feel like something thrilling can happen. Our audiences come for an adventure and we like nothing better than taking them on one.”

Those adventures in recent years have included the multiple award-winning Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Life of Pi (which was due to go into the West End before Coronavirus), Hastie’s masterful Julius Caesar, Richard Bean’s The Nap and Kenneth Branagh’s Richard III; they all featured in my Sheffield Theatres magazine piece.

“The Crucible is iconic, one of the best theatre spaces in the world, epic and intimate at the same time,” says Hastie.

“But we’re not just the theatre spaces. Under normal circumstances there are activities going on all over the building every day. I can’t wait until the buildings feel that buzz of activity again – it’s heart-breaking for me to see them empty and dark.”

Hastie’s custodianship of the theatre puts him in a rare list. He remains today, even in this difficult time, as excited about the job as when he first arrived in the Steel City.

“The Crucible is one of the best stages in the world. Actors love it – it’s where I started my career as an actor and I never forget the power that stage gives you and the connection you feel to the audience. I’ve never worked in a place where the pride the city has in its theatre is so palpable.”

I know what he means. While I’ve been writing these lockdown theatre profile pieces, I’ve been impressed by the passion and creativity. Hastie is very clearly a man in love with the theatre of which he has charge.

I get it. “Nationally we’re important to British theatre because we take risks in making bold new work with heart and joy and a sense of community and when those shows come off they don’t just sell out here, they fill theatres in London and across the country.”

So what happens next? “The fundamentals of theatre won’t change. We all like gathering together to have stories told to us, which is why it’s survived as a human activity for so long and why it will survive this,” he says.

There is a conversation happening in theatre about what the shows will look like when they go on once more.

Hastie has an idea: “We have to make sure that in deciding what work to put on to draw people back into the theatre we don’t just go for the safe, familiar, bankable shows.

“It’s possible to be artistically ambitious and have broad popular appeal. It’s back to that spirit of adventure: when your audiences have got that, then the sky’s the limit.”

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson

Editor