10 December 2014
It’s almost pitch black in the large room, which is resolutely faded in its glory. There are nice pictures on the wall, but the place has obviously been abandoned by its owners. Some furniture is covered in drop cloths. A woman is sleeping fitfully on the couch, a blanket protecting her from the cold. Across the way from her, a couple lie on a mattress, sleeping. Next to them, a large, portable bassinet affair in which an infant gurgles in the arms of Morpheus. It is very late at night.
A door at the rear of the room opens. A silhouetted figure appears there. Wild red hair cascades down to and over her shoulders. She seems to be wearing a nightgown but it is not clear. Tentatively, she enters the darkened room. A floorboard creaks. The woman on the couch is instantly alert, fearful, watchful, wondering. She wakes the couple, asking if they heard anything. Nothing. Go back to sleep, they mumble.
Braver now, the ghostly figure moves into the room, between the sleepers, now past them, to the front of the stage. Again, her tread releases sound from the floorboards. This time couch woman is insistent – someone is there. The man gets up to look around and suddenly goes entirely still. There is someone there and he is staring at her.
The lights are turned on and she is revealed. The expression on couch woman’s face is that extraordinary combination of despair, hope and horror. These two women know each other. How? Why? And what does it mean?
These questions lie at the emotional heart of Tena Štivičić’s new play, 3 Winters, now having its world premiere at the Lyttleton Theatre in a production directed by Howard Davies. The play represents a compact introduction to the politics and profound horror and change that has overtaken Yugoslavia (as it was), Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia since the end of World War Two. It is, literally, jam-packed with detail about the changing political fortunes of Zagreb in Croatia and, in particular, the ownership of a grand house once occupied by a grand family but which, after the War, was confiscated and divided up, shared between three families on the orders of the newly installed Communist regime.
Štivičić sets the action in three separate periods: the immediate aftermath of the end of the War in 1945; the time in 1990 when Slobodan Milosevic, then in charge of Serbia, confronted his fellow leaders and the plenum of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia disintegrated; and 1990, the time when Croatia was lobbying to be allowed to join the European Union.
Against this waterfall of political events, theories and manoeuvres, Štivičić’s story deals with one house and it’s secrets. Karolina and her father owned the house, but he was on the wrong side of the War and fled to South America at its end. He had confined Karolina to a mental institution but she simply walked out of her prison when freedom came to the city and made her way to her family home.
But the Communists had claimed it; she avoided their searches and remained living in its nooks and crannies. Then Rose and her husband, Alexander, Rose’s mother, Monika, and her baby, Masha, are assigned a floor of the house and they move in; Alexander and Monika overawed by the space and luxury that they, mere peasants, in their own eyes, have been permitted. Rose’s vision for the future is somewhat different.
It is not happenstance. Rose knows “the General” and was a war heroine, a resistance fighter, and she has been allowed to choose her new home. Her choice is deliberate. She picks the house from which her mother was unceremoniously expelled soon after giving birth to Rose. Karolina kicked her out, uncaring about the infant who needed a warm home. Karolina’s act would condemn Momika and Rose to a hard, difficult life, made more difficult for Rose when, as a child, she delivers a message, traipsing for ten miles in snow in her unlocked clogs; her feet are permanently deformed by the frostbite.
And there they are: suddenly together again, in the middle of the night, the tables turned, the power reversed, the possibilities endless.
And that is just 1945.
Which is the key problem with the play, alas. The 1945 passages are genuinely intoxicating; the other two eras, by comparison, are tiresome family squabbles, suffused with overloads of information about politics and the state of Croatia. With a few exceptions, everyone in the 1990 and 2001 scenes is dull, cold and/or plain irritating.
The exceptions are all in the 1990 scenes: the older Karolina (a good turn from Tracy Bargate, Susan Engel being indisposed), the older Alexander (a beautifully judged character from James Laurenson; his long speech about his horse is truly gripping and haunts you afterwards) and the younger Lucia, Masha’s precocious daughter (a truthful and delicious performance from Charlotte Beaumont).
Especially disappointing is Siobhan Finneran who has the key role of Masha, Rose’s daughter in both the 1990 and 2001 scenes. Eschewing any trace of warmth or maternal interest, Finneran totally misjudges her character. This woman is not a bitter lady’s maid in Downton Abbey; she is an altogether more complex, more fascinating, and more accessible woman. Permitting Finneran to fatally undermine the play in this way is inexcusable on Davies’ part.
Mind you, it’s not his only egregious casting/acting black hole. Masha’s husband, Vlado, disappears without trace in the hands of Adrian Rawlins; fussy, mannered and constantly “acting”, Rawlins fails to create a truthful, real man from Štivičić’s text. Indeed, apart from Laurenson’s Alexander and Alex Jordan’s troubled Marko, none of the men achieve more than adequacy and most leave a lot to be desired. Daniel Flynn’s Karl even gives Rawlins a run for his money in the “How can you be working for the National Theatre?” consternation.
At times, it is hard to know what Howard Davies was thinking. The audience at the National Theatre is unlikely to know the detail of the recent history of Croatia, yet that is really essential to understanding the 1990 and 2001 scenes. As director, his task was to make the audience enjoy discovering what they need to know and to ensure that the characters are played in a way that encourages the audience to care. Without that effort, Štivičić’s play comes dangerously close to being a lecture and not a play.
Partly, though, this is a fault in the writing. The 1945 scenes work the best because the political background is clearer and the direct affect of that background on the main characters is palpable and explains the tensions, the reactions, the drama. Everything in 1945 is crystal clear.
In the later decades, the characters are not so much embroiled in the political events; they are more spectators, with much to say but little that talk defines them. It is the older versions of the 1945 characters, Finneran’s Masha aside, which spark the interest. 1945 still shapes them.
Jo Herbert is excellent as Rose, the resistance fighter cum Party official, who struggles with the new order, her mother, her devastated feet, her fearful husband, her baby, her new home and then, unexpectedly, Karolina, the woman who destroyed her mother and stole her childhood. Herbert conveys the pain, the possibilities that power brings, irritation with “the old ways” and a determined hope for the future. It’s a clever, nuanced performance.
But the acting honours for the night go to Josie Walker (Monika) and Hermione Gulliford (Karolina). Walker is astonishingly true as the pinched, frightened and quite lost Monika. She has never recovered from the shame of being kicked out of service by the impetuous and imperious Karolina or the bitter rejection she endured from her parents when she arrived, infant out of wedlock in tow, looking for help, kindness, a sense of family. Walker conveys all of this, compactly, silently for the most part. Particularly good is her ability to demonstrate Monika’s confusion at the new Communist order. In that way, she represents the old poor Croatia – but not as a cipher; as a whole, fully formed character.
Gulliford completes the picture; her wide-eyed, overwhelmed former aristocrat, now totally at the mercy of the infant she kicked into oblivion, is a perfect match for Walker. She embodies the essence of old rich Croatia. There is a marvellous scene towards the end of Act One where Walker and Gulliford share the couch, both wanting to be there but both not knowing how to negotiate a new phase in their fractured relationship. Completely different creatures, but each needing the other to be complete. It is a joy to watch.
It was impossible not to wonder why Davies had not cast Walker in Finneran’s role, such is the power and complexity of her performance. But as soon as Gulliford’s Karolina arrived in the 1945 scene, the answer was clear. Monika needs to be in sync with Karolina and of Finneran and Walker, only Walker could provide that harmony, that strength.
But the solid work of the cast in the 1945 scenes cannot rescue the evening; the play becomes bogged down and faintly ludicrous in the scenes set in the latter decades. Davies cannot make the whole work. Whether it can work, only a different production and cleverer casting can tell, but you don’t need the entrails of a goat to come to the conclusion that the possibilities are small.
Štivičić’s writing in the 1945 scenes is compelling, vivid and teeming with life, warmth and interest. The audience gets the history lesson in an entirely entertaining and absorbing way. Perhaps if Štivičić had kept her play to that time, the end result would be more satisfactory all around.
The three era setting, however, does permit designer Tim Hatley to go to town, in the time honoured tradition of the Lyttleton. A lot of money has been spent on this set. An ingenious set of moving panels permits smooth transitions from era to era in the same house. The basic overall shape of the set is the same from scene to scene, decade to decade, but as the panels move they reveal completely different households and times. Sometimes, the effect is magical.
However, there are unnecessary projections of contemporary film footage from the three eras which are superimposed on the moving panels and set as there is transition from scene to scene. This proves both distracting and overwhelming, adding further to the information overload the play seems to revel in. James Farncombe’s lighting is exemplary and the incidental music composed by Dominic Muldowney is both effective and enhancing.
If your knowledge of recent Croatian history is better than your knowledge of recent English history, then you might have an altogether different experience. If you study up in the field before you attend, the 1990 and 2001 scenes might resonate in ways they did not for me. But the 1945 scenes require nothing more than a willing, open mind: the acting and the writing do the rest on Davies’ watch.