Theatre review: 3 Winters

Sophie Rundle and Jodie McNee light up the National in Tena Stivcic's historical epic

Lyttelton Theatre | ★★★★☆

In Britain, it can be difficult to understand the seismic societal shifts that characterised much of modern European history. From 1945 to 2011, Croatia moved through monarchy and communism to capitalism, on the way fragmenting from Yugoslavia in a brutal succession of wars. London-based Croatian playwright Tena Stivcic’s new play follows a single family through this tumult, centring on four generations of women at three points in time. Throughout it all, we remain in the same building – a flat in a grandiose bourgeoisie residence, granted freely to the family by Tito’s officials.
The decision to compress three distinct eras into two and a half hours has its problems. Early scenes, burdened by a need to establish a historical context, feel heavy-handed in exposition. The surfeit of facts threatens to swamp the characters, turning them into mouthpieces for briefing the audience. But once the play’s world has been mapped and its cast given room to breathe, 3 Winters becomes a work of startling emotional power.
In the first 2011 scene we learn that the husband of Lucia (Sophie Rundle) is buying the house, a decision that agitates her idealistic sibling Alisa (Jodie McNee). The debate seems to be clear-cut: avarice versus social conscience. But when we revisit the issue at the play’s close, it has become a microcosm of Croatian history, where so many societal values have been overturned that it is difficult to judge how to act any more. This as much a puzzle piece as a family drama, gaining force as its shadowy canvas is slowly illuminated.
The cast inhabit the space with a deft naturalism, directed by National Theatre fixture Howard Davies. We can sense the trepidation as Rose (Jo Herbert) and Alexander (Alex Price) set foot in their newly acquired flat, unable to comprehend such a grand residence; we can equally feel the later generation’s ease in such surroundings. Tim Hatley’s set is masterful, using period décor to seamlessly move us through different iterations of the same space. The video projections that conceal these shifts ably convey the larger events affecting the family’s fortunes, and become particularly acute when used to signal the Balkan Wars.
Stivcic’s script is particularly adept at transitioning from pathos to humour, and at capturing the close-knit ties of family. There is warmth and humanity in the tensest of confrontations – Alisa and Lucy argue while sharing a spliff and playing dress-up – but also moments of horror, as wartime machismo begets domestic abuse.
Measured while never ceasing to be entertaining, 3 Winters is a fine, intelligent piece of theatre, lingering in the mind long after the curtain falls.

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