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11 Dec 14

Croatian Winter’s Tale Impresses British Theatregoers

New play about three generations of a family in Zagreb is drawing the crowds in London.

Marcus Tanner
BIRN London

Plays and films on Balkan themes rarely wow Western audiences or impress notoriously hard-to-please London critics – but a new play by a Croatian author has broken that rule.

Three Winters” by Tena Stivicic is filling seats nightly at London’s prestigious National Theatre with its complex tale about three generations of family life in post-Second World War Zagreb.

The size of the audiences is all the more impressive as this is no easily digested personal drama that just happens to have a foreign backdrop.

The ups and downs of the family are set against complex political and social changes that followed the Communist takeover in 1945, the collapse of Yugoslavia a couple of decades later and, finally, Croatia’s accession to the European Union.

One of several questions running through the play is who owns what - because almost all the action takes place within one room – the living room of an old-fashioned bourgeois townhouse that the Communists requisition and hand over to a battle-hardened Partisan woman in 1945.

Forty-give years later - by which time she is dead and “her” Yugoslavia is dying - her two daughters have in some ways become every bit as bourgeois as the house’s former owners.

Her granddaughters, meanwhile, have gone their separate ways. One has become a politically radical lesbian in London, and appears lost. The other has stayed in Zagreb and has successfully adapted to the new capitalist Croatia.

About to get married in church to a wealthy businessman with dubious connections, she and her husband have an eye on buying up the freehold to the house that the family have occupied for decades but did not have the money to maintain.

The playwright says her inspiration came from own family’s stories. “My mother’s, my aunt’s, my grandmother’s and even my great grandmother’s when I was very little,” she said in an interview.

“These women spoke in very different voices, each with a different set of tools, or in fact, lack of tools to express their circumstances and articulate the plight of their life.

“When I started doing research for the play I was particularly interested in these different voices of generations and whether they developed as a consequence of, or in spite of socio-political circumstances.”

With its large cast of characters and asides about Tito, the Partisans, the Ustashe, the Croatian Home Guard, the last congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party and a lot more besides, you might think a British audience would lose the plot well before they got to drinks interval at half-time.

However, the play gets round some of these informational hurdles by letting the actors contextualize a lot of history in their lines - and by interspersing the action on stage with a lot of grainy TV footage of the Communist takeover and, later, of the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Certainly, the critics are impressed. “A rich and sophisticated journey through Croatia’s turbulent post-War history,” the London Evening Standard wrote.

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