Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: 3 Winters; Hope

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: 3 Winters; Hope

Article excerpt

3 Winters

Lyttelton, In rep until 3 February

Hope

Royal Court, Until 10 January

A masterpiece at the National. A masterpiece of persuasion and bewitchment. Croatian word-athlete Tena Stivicic has miraculously convinced director Howard Davies that she can write epic historical theatre. And Davies has transmitted his gullibility to Nicholas Hytner, who must have OK'd this blizzard of verbiage rather than converting it into biofuel and sparing us a hideous Balkans ballyhoo.

Certainly the play is conceived on a grand scale. Location: a Zagreb mansion. Timeline: 1945 to 2011. Characters: several generations of clever proles plus one dangling aristo. It opens on a note of sourness and corruption. A blonde Marxist stunnah seduces a top commissar who buys her off with the freehold to a townhouse occupied by some rich bloodsuckers. The snooty vermin are kicked out. Enter the noble plebs. They're all in favour of communal ownership except when it comes to communal ownership of something they want. Like the house. A flappy young heiress, made homeless by the new arrivals, asks permission to squat in her former bedroom, and she's grudgingly allowed to remain so long as she pays her way by stitching the boots of the downtrodden poor. Everyone detests her except for her lady's maid, who used to launder her smalls and clearly suffers from Stockholm syndrome.

We hop forwards and backwards between various historical pinchpoints. The family expands. Daughters are born and marry. More daughters sprout. Croatia's shifting destiny is imparted to us in gobbets of gluey chitchat. 'Yugoslavia's fucked,' says an armchair expert in 1990. He's among the more imaginative and eloquent characters on display. And this is the difficulty. The architecture of the script is impressive but Stivicic has stuffed her big tent with chippy know-alls, motormouth professors, and Dictionary Corner pea-brains who jabber jabber jabber at each other non-stop, for 65 years, in an unvarying register of competitive truculence. Even Bernard Shaw would have found this play too wordy.

It doesn't help that all the characters dislike nearly all the other characters. There's a lot of gratuitous ugliness here as well. Some of the wittering womenfolk get assaulted by their husbands. One of these thumpy love affairs is acted out on stage, with sickening brutality, for no reason at all other than sexual titillation. Not enough violent porn on the internet? Try the National.

The play owes debts to Doctor Zhivago and The Cherry Orchard that it can't repay. …

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