Croatia’s recent political history, nicely summarised for us in the 3 Winters programme (but even then, it takes three closely-typed pages) makes Northern Ireland look like a squabble at a children’s tea party. Massive shifts in ideology and outlook, from Capitalism to Communism and back again, would turn patriots into traitors overnight: “When we lost the war, my general said,” one old solider tells us, “Change your clothes, go home, and say you never did anything.” And it is the human instinct to survive, and to live through and despite war, that is at the heart of this strong, uncompromising and sometimes harrowing play from Tena Štivičić.
3 Winters operates in a mixture of time zones: 1945, 1990 and 2011, each year contributing cleverly chosen vignettes from family life which eventually tell the whole story. The scenes shift smoothly (and miraculously quickly) backwards and forwards, introducing us to various members of the same family, all living in the same house, though under very different circumstances. As the fortunes of the house and family change, so does the world outside: Croatia is developing as a nation, even as this family are adding generation after generation to their story. But the politics never overpowers the emotional dynamics of this piece, even if it dominates many family dinner table discussions (to the disgust of the matriarch Masha: “I am vetoing this conversation. It never ends well”).
Strong characterisation from Štivičić and fine performances from her large cast make 3 Winters a compelling watch. With the family to the fore, you don’t need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastern European history to understand the plot (though I am sure it could be a bonus). It is complicated, particularly at the beginning, but as the play moves on it settles and resolves itself into some pleasingly well-drawn domestic scenes, with anguish, passion and violence all intruding into family life. War leaves its mark on everybody: some strengthen, others unravel, and the persistence of guilt and suspicion, the hallmark of a totalitarian state, stains family relationships for years afterwards. Štivičić immerses us in the cultural shifts which serve to dislocate the youngest generation of Croatians from their elders: the young daughters of 2011 really do seem to live in a different world from their parents, and even from each other, much to everyone’s distress. The problem of living abroad in England, finding a better future but abandoning family and homeland, is nicely posed (and hotly topical). And it’s not all doom and gloom: Štivičić has a talent for warm humour, with wonderfully ironic exchanges often lightening the mood.
Elsewhere, it’s harrowing, with grainy video projections of war-torn streets and dead bodies, or General Tito triumphant. The sacrifices people make to survive come at a terrible price, sometimes (with PTSD sufferer Marko) the price of their sanity, movingly encapsulated in a powerful outburst. Ultimately, we leave the theatre knowing the family well, and the tortured political history of Croatia, if not perfectly, rather better than before.