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 The Theatreguide.London Review

3 Winters
Lyttelton Theatre  Winter 2014-2015

The story of one family and one house is the locus for a consideration of the social and political history of Croatia in the past century.

But by trying to look inward and outward at the same time, this play by Tena Štivičić doesn't do full justice to either story, and some decisions by director Howard Davies and designer Tim Hatley compound an audience's difficulty in following the play's double strands. 

In the course of the past hundred years residents of, say, Zagreb were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia, the Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes, Yugoslavia, Nazi-dominated Croatia, the Yugoslav People's Republic, and Croatia again. 

In the same period they went through two World Wars, numerous more local scuffles and the mutual genocides the various pieces of the crumbling Yugoslavia imposed on each other as the invented country crumbled in the 1990s. 

And in socio-economic terms a near-feudal aristocracy gave way to German dictatorship followed by nominally egalitarian Communism and then by a gangster-dominated capitalism similar to Russia's.

I apologise for all that background, but Tena Štivičić's play pretty much assumes you know all this coming in. 

3 Winters is set at three periods of national change for Croatia – the beginning of the Communist era in 1945, the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990, and the symbolic and practical culmination of Croatia's Westernisation in its admission to the European Union in 2011. 

Within the play the grand house where a woman was a servant in 1918 is allocated in part to her daughter by the Communists in 1945 and bought for the family by her great-granddaughter's oligarch husband-to-be in 2011. 

That's a lot to squeeze into a play, and while some of it is achieved by the sort of exposition-stuffed conversations in which people tell each other things they already know so we can overhear them, a lot of it is left for us to pick up through passing hints or programme notes. 

Meanwhile, to keep the characters from being just stand-ins for history, the playwright creates individual and family dramas – a bit of sibling rivalry here, a crumbling marriage there, and the like – that never rise above soap opera clichés or are fully resolved. (One secret meant to give the domestic story an ironic resolution is kept from most of the characters but telegraphed to us two hours before it is finally revealed, so it doesn't have much effect.) 

The result is a race through the personal and national stories that doesn't allow us to become fully engrossed in, or even fully clear about either. To compound matters, Štivičić chooses to tell the story out of chronological order, jumping back and forth among the play's three periods, with only set and costume changes to cue us to where we are as each new scene begins.

(Designer Tim Hatley covers the scene changes with some clever moving panels and newsreel footage, but since one war or aftermath-of-war image looks pretty much like another, the films aren't always of much time-setting help.) 

And the director has chosen to have different actors play the characters in each period, adding another level of quick learning the audience must go through (Who am I looking at right now, and when? Is this actress I think I've seen before the mother in 1990 or her daughter in 2011?) 

That we keep track of the personal stories at all, and get some sense of the social changes going on outside this house is an accomplishment for which director and actors must be given some credit, but you can't help feeling they're fighting a losing battle. 

With most of the cast limited to a single time period and seen only in disjointed fragments, few have the opportunity to make much impression. Jo Herbert shows a survivor's determination as the woman given the house in 1945, and Sophie Rundle has a strong scene as the very practical bride-to-be in 2011.

Gerald Berkowitz

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