Thursday, 4 December 2014

Theatre review: 3 Winters

As we reach Nicholas Hytner's final months running the National, a number of the most successful creatives from the last few years of his reign feature heavily. Howard Davies has been most closely associated with directing Russian classics on the Lyttelton stage, and though his latest production is a new Croatian play, it feels very much part of this ongoing series. In part it comes down to the set, this time provided by Tim Hatley: These shows have been noted for their audacious scene changes, and they're not only present and correct but a vital component of Tena Štivičić’s 3 Winters. This is because the winters in the story occur decades apart in the same house, and to the same family. In 1945, as the Communists take over, they evict the old royalist families. Rose (Jo Herbert,) her husband Alexander (Alex Price in 1945, James Laurenson in 1990) and their baby daughter Masha are allocated a large room in the mansion where Rose's mother Monika (Josie Walker) was once a servant.

Rose dies in 1990, and as Masha (Siobhan Finneran,) her husband Vlado (Adrian Rawlins) and their children gather for the funeral, the country is undergoing another huge upheaval as Yugoslavia starts to split in what will become a catastrophic civil war.

The resulting country is Croatia, which in 2011 is aiming to join the EU, a move some see as a reversal of their hard-won independence. It again coincides with big events for the Kos family as Masha and Vlado's eldest daughter Alisa (Jodie McNee) returns for her sister Lucia's (Sophie Rundle) wedding. After generations on the middle floor, Lucia's fiancé has bought the whole house for the family. As panels slide across the stage, Hatley's set goes back and forth in time (James Farncombe's lighting design helping give each era its own distinct feel) with news footage projected onto the stage to clue us in to which decade we're visiting next.

Štivičić’s is a dense story that's put together like a puzzle, although one that's maybe a bit too easy to solve at times (the final scene's big revelation was a plot point Jan and I had been discussing at the interval, saying it didn't need to be spelt out as it had already been strongly enough implied.) Davies' steady hand directs a strong cast of characters that also features the house's previous owner, Karolina (Hermione Gulliford in 1945, Susan Engel in 1990,) who despite her drastic change in circumstances just won't leave.

Following the grand sweep of the long (90 minutes) first act, after the interval Štivičić changes tack somewhat to give us some more intimate scenes showing us Masha and Vlado worrying about what kind of relationship they have and what kind their daughter will have; Alisa's relationship with their neighbour Marko (Alex Jordan in 1990, Gerald Kyd in 2011) who ended up with PTSD from the war; and the cold home life of Masha's sister Dunya (Lucy Black) and her deeply unpleasant husband Karl (Daniel Flynn.) I found this a bit too late to try and inject some personal details in what had been an epic family drama, and I'm not sure anything was actually added to our understanding of the story by it.

And while Štivičić largely avoids the trap of turning the political side of the story into a lecture, there are moments when the family's discussions of current affairs border on a history lesson. But if the quiet final revelation isn't as surprising as it thinks, it's preceded by a powerful scene as Lucia, bulimic, with breast implants and possibly marrying a gangster, twists everyone's low expectations of her. Flawed and overlong, but powerful.

3 Winters by Tena Štivičić is booking in repertory until the 3rd of February at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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