Entertainment & Arts

Croatian play 3 Winters has female soul

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Image caption 3 Winters focuses on the lives of four generations of women in the playwright's own family

In the 1990s, chaos in the Balkans was news around the world. Today, the region has largely slipped from the headlines.

Tena Stivicic's new play at the National Theatre is set against a background of decades of turbulence in Croatia. But the author's real interest lay in chronicling one family in a single house in Zagreb - and its women in particular.

Playwright Stivicic says that when she started work on 3 Winters, memories of her own family in Croatia inspired parts of the fictional Kos family, whose success and sadnesses are the heart of her story.

"But not now. This play took quite a long time to write and the process of creating a drama is transformational for the writer. It takes you places you didn't expect. So whatever autobiography there was has virtually gone."

Stivicic was born in Zagreb and took a degree in Theatre Studies there. "But I think even when I was four or five I always had an ambition to live outside what was then Yugoslavia; I wanted to experience new places."

She continued her studies at Goldsmith's College in London and, other than a stint in Switzerland, has lived in Britain since.

"When I came to London I knew I loved British theatre culture," says Stivicic, who has been married to the Scottish actor Douglas Henshall since 2010. "These days I very much feel a Londoner."

Her new play takes place in a house in Croatia over the course of 75 years, ending in 2011. The action focuses on three winters at three different points in the nation's development.

"But I didn't set out to give a history lesson about the place I grew up in; that would never interest me as a playwright. I hope I'm shining a light on relationships within the family."

Stivicic wanted to investigate the lives of four generations of women in her own family. "It was the kernel of my inspiration, even if the play moved well beyond that.

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Image caption Playwright Tena Stivicic during rehearsals for the play

"My great-grandmother was a barely literate working-class woman who had no voice in society to express whatever thoughts and desires she had. So I'm writing about what happened to female voices over a century.

"But this was also a country where the world was torn down and re-erected, then torn down again. So the play happens in a specific time and place."

Stivicic thinks that even now, too few new plays contain substantial roles for women.

"I've written good parts for the men too - and we've got great actors in those parts. But it's quite rare to find the human experience explored through female protagonists. So that's where the play's centre of gravity is."

Early drafts of 3 Winters were written in twin versions, English and Croatian.

"Mainly now I write in English. But because this play's set in Zagreb, I knew that to begin with I needed to hear the characters speak in their native language.

"On the other hand, if I'd written only Croatian, I would have ended up translating my own finished play into English, which wouldn't have worked. So for a while there were parallel versions before I switched entirely into English."

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Image caption Tena Stivicic: "British people are proud of their theatrical tradition but they barely get to see anything even from France or Germany, let alone from somewhere like Croatia or Poland"

Stivicic had her first success as a playwright in 1999 with Can't Escape Sundays, which was performed in Slovenia and Serbia as well as in her native country.

Her works since have been staged in Germany, and in 2007 Fragile! premiered at the Arcola in London. It was set in London among migrants from Serbia and Croatia and it has been seen since in several Balkan countries.

"It's interesting what happens culturally when a country falls apart the way Yugoslavia did. There were always levels of cooperation between the different nations in some areas of life, even in the worst of times.

"Things like sporting relations continued with not many problems - and certainly the criminal underworld was perfectly happy with the new borders of the early 1990s.

"But it took a while for cultural relations to work themselves out. Even when my first plays were produced in Serbia it was still highly unusual, but things travel a bit more easily now."

Stivicic is one of the few playwrights from the former Yugoslavia whose works have been seen in Britain. Does it disappoint her that, for all Britain's reputation as a great theatre culture, little new work from eastern Europe appears in major venues in the UK?

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Image caption Benidorm and Downton Abbey actress Siobhan Finneran takes a lead role

"Well, there are places like the National, the Royal Court and the Barbican - theatregoers in London can see really interesting work from the rest of Europe. And there's sometimes excellent stuff outside London too.

"But given how huge theatre is here, it's surprising there isn't more. There's maybe an unnecessary fear it will belong to an impenetrable culture or that the theatrical language it speaks will be too difficult for audiences.

"In the rest of Europe there's a strong network between theatres across national borders and the best productions travel. There's a lively exchange between countries and cultures and even different languages.

"British people are proud of their theatrical tradition, but they barely get to see anything even from France or Germany, let alone from somewhere like Croatia or Poland.

"Europe has an incredibly rich tradition of drama which is only three or four hours away. The football teams come here, but it would be great if we saw more of the theatre too."

3 Winters runs at the National Theatre until 3 February.

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