Theatre review: 3 Winters at the National Theatre

This dark, resonating epic keeps it in the family, says Marianka Swain

London-based Croatian writer Tena Stivicic’s National Theatre debut keeps it in the family, with 70 years of history refracted through one Zagreb house and bloodline.

Ambitious and exquisitely constructed, 3 Winters shifts seamlessly between three time periods: 1945, birth of Communist Yugoslavia, when fierce partisan Rose (Jo Herbert) appropriated part of the house where her mother (Josie Walker) was a maid; 1990, as civil war looms and Rose’s family mourns her passing; and 2011, when independent Croatia negotiates EU membership, and the clan gathers for Lucia’s (Sophie Rundle) wedding to a capitalist tycoon who’s bought the property and evicted the other tenants.

There are several exposition dumps early on, but Stivicic mostly trusts her audience to keep up – perusing the programme’s potted history is a must. Howard Davies’ crisp production serves the clarity and economy of her storytelling, with Tim Hatley’s ingenious sliding screens easing us between time jumps, accompanied by film projections of harrowing recent events.

Stivicic displays a real gift for balancing personal and political. Although a large cast necessarily means some are confined to snapshots, her characters are richly drawn and her dialogue sharp, funny and true to life. The present-day bickering relations are most engaging, including Siobhan Finneran’s stoical matriarch, Lucy Black’s troubled divorcée, Adrian Rawlins’ speechifying teacher, and the thematically effective warring sisters: liberal Alisa (Jodie McNee) and pragmatic Lucia. Adrift aristo Karolina (Hermione Gulliford and Susan Engel) provides a wistful note.

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Unusually for an epic, female experience dominates. The women negotiate control of their destinies, balance security and principle, examine the legacy of war, and adapt to survive. The climactic twist is predictable, otherwise this is a terrifically impressive tale of family and nation with resonance for our own changing homeland.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

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