Tena Štivičić sets herself a daunting task in this new play at the National. Taking four generations of a Croatian family and the house in which they live as her theme, she seeks to tell the story of Yugoslavia/Croatia from the end of the Second World War to Croatian accession to the EU. At times the weight of history and ideological debate threaten to drown the characters but a haunting truthfulness shines through.
Štivičić picks three moments (the three winters of the title) to observe her characters: 1945 and the end of WWII, 1990 and the imminent collapse of Yugoslavia into war and 2011 (Croatian accession to the EU). But this is not a straightforward chronological narrative – scenes from across the three periods are intercut with each other. Close attention must be paid to keep on top of the stories, and another result is to leave one wanting at various points to see more (the Dunya-Karl marriage in particular is a little lightly drawn). Overall though the intercutting is well judged – enriching our understanding of the different moments and the characters shifting predicaments. A spellbinding instance is the final scene of the first half. We've already seen the youthful Alexander King (Alex Price) in 1945, hampered by a royal name that is now a liability, striving to match the Communist convictions of his wife and conscious that he doesn't altogether believe. We've also seen him stretch out a hand to the aristocratic Karolina whom the Communists have evicted from the house. Now we see him, an old man (James Laurenson) in 1990 following his wife's funeral. Out of nowhere he starts telling the story of his perilous survival at the end of the war. In itself it's a magical piece of writing, and Laurenson delivers it to perfection. But it was the little moment that follows which really got me. The tv news announces the breakdown of the Communist Party Congress, signalling the appalling war we know will follow. Director Howard Davies has the now old Karolina (an imposing Susan Engel) slowly move to a chair beside Laurenson, and take his hand, their eyes never leaving one another's faces as the curtain falls. It's moving for the human gesture, but more because it is impossible not to be conscious, because we've already been witnesses to it, that they've suffered this kind of thing before. Their resigned silence tellingly reminds us how easily we forget.
There's plenty of finely observed human relationships elsewhere in the piece and it's a tribute to this strong ensemble that nearly all the characters make an impression, even though in practice many of them don't have that much stage time. I came away from the play feeling I would like to know more about all of them. Even the two young daughters, whose characters I found least appealing, came to seem to me not a problem of the writing or acting, but a discomfort because I would wish them both to behave differently. From it all, though, I would particularly single out two other scenes. The first, the dissection of the retired married couple Masha (Siobhan Finneran) and Vlado (Adrian Rawlins) – current frustrations, doubts about past decisions, but ultimately a bond that endures. The second, the utterly haunting final scene – one of those remarkable moments at the end of the play which I'll come back to at the end of this piece.
Before that I must mention the other key element of this performance: Tim Hatley's superb design, assisted by Jon Driscoll's projections and James Farncombe's lighting. This allows for almost uniformally seamless transitions between the three eras of the house. Dominic Muldowney's music also catches just the right mood.
But to go back to that final scene. We are taken back to the start of it all as Great-Grandmother Monika (Josie Walker), once maid to Karolina, recalls her seduction at the hands of Karolina's brother. As she describes it there is at first something pathetic in her failure to see (even now) that she was simply being used, and then the story reminds us that perhaps we cannot, we should not judge:
“And he looked into my eyes,” she says, “'Who knows', he said, 'what life has in store for us?' I sometimes still find hope in that.”
Hope is ambivalent and fragile in this play, but it remains despite the horrors that can't be stopped, and it brought tears to my eyes. A few performances still remain in the run. Highly recommended.