It’s no mean feat being the first playwright in history to represent your country in the repertoire of London’s National Theatre. Especially as there is very little beyond a set of ill-fitting stereotypes in the imagination of your target audience that you can hang your representation on.
‘What do you call four Croatian girls in a room? – A brothel’ goes one joke delivered in a heat of anger in Tena Štivičić’s play. There are seven women played by ten actresses here, as it happens, and if you were a man, you probably wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with any four of them. Single-minded, witty and fiery they stand their ground even when their feet are withering away.
In what is clearly a state of the nation play, Štivičić therefore emancipates Croatia even from the (mis)conceptions that were ascribed to it when in the 1990s it emerged from the Yugoslav war as a finally liberated victim of its ‘colonial’ past. Instead the playwright goes much deeper and takes on all the complexities of her country’s troubled past with honesty and passion.
At the centre of 3 Winters is the relationship of four generations of women to a house. First there is Karolina (Hermione Gulliford and Susan Engel) whose family had owned the place during the Austro-Hungarian rule and the servant Monika (Josie Walker), kicked out of the house with her two day old baby Rose. In 1945 – one of the winters of the title – Rose (Jo Herbert), now a sturdy partisan and a mother herself, returns to the house with her family as its new rightful owner. Unbeknown to her, Karolina, on the run from a mental asylum, will soon rejoin them in their living quarters. Later in 1990 and 2011 we also meet Rose’s two daughters Masha (Siobhan Finnerman) and Dunya (Lucy Black), and Masha’s two daughters Alisa (Jodie McNee and Bebe Sanders) and Lucia (Sophie Rundle and Charlotte Beaumont), each woman taking it in turns to metaphorically represent a facet of Croatia’s personality (while the house stands perhaps for its subtly changing physical territory).
It is worth noting that men also feature in the story, most notably Masha’s tame but slightly neurotic husband, a communist intellectual Vlado, played with gusto by Adrian Rawlins. In Štivičić’s representation, Croatia is therefore a complex mixture – as the text itself notes of ‘the male and the female, the East and the West, the town and country’ – and seemingly also the conservative and the progressive, with a bit of madness thrown in. There are inevitable resonances of Chekhov and of Croatia’s own early twentieth century dramatist Miroslav Krleža in the play, although the overall effect, at least in this production, is more suggestive of the British tradition of Wilde and Shaw. Dramaturgically, it is an exquisitely constructed play, and as a writer Štivičić demonstrates a winning combination of rhythm, imagination and wit. It is not often the house breaks into uproarious applause on the strength of a punchline alone, and the penultimate scene of the play, delivered deftly by the actors, manages to do just that.
However, it is not always an easy ride. Howard Davis’s fastidious direction attempts to take care of both the playwright and the audience, offering video flashbacks to the country’s past in between remarkably smooth scene changes and looking to render the characters into approximations familiar to the British imagination which results in an occasionally jarring effect. The play does pack 70 years of history in two and a half hours and it is at times difficult to take everything in, even if you happen to have lived through aspects of the history yourself. But while we are at it I may as well own up to the fact that I was indeed one of those – apparently numerous on the night – audience members privileged in the way of a personal connection to the material. And, despite any minor reservations, it must be said it was a joy to be finally admitted into the fold of the British mainstream in this way, for the first time in over twenty years of regular theatre-going.
Operation Home: Tena Štivičić on the history of 3 Winters.