3 Winters (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Tena Štivičić’s new play creates the portrait of an eclectic family over half a century of Croatian history

Jodie McNee (Alisa Kos) and Gerald Kyd (Marko) in 3 Winters
Jodie McNee (Alisa Kos) and Gerald Kyd (Marko) in 3 Winters
© Ellie Kurttz
The three winters in this ambitious and enthralling new Croatian play are those of 1945, 1990 and 2011, dates that mark the end of the war and the birth of Tito's Yugoslavia; the onset of fragmentation into republics and ethnic conflicts; and Croatia's entry into the European Union.

Within this historic framework, playwright Tena Stivicic – the daughter of a famous Croatian actor, she's a long-term London resident and is writing here in (pretty good) English – charts the story of one family and its fortunes, three generations of Zagreb women, their dinners and feuds, their politics and their relationships in what has always been a violently macho society, with deep-rooted attachments to the Catholic Church and, of course, Nazism.

It's a combustible brew, and it takes time to get your bearings. But it's almost a novelty these days to have an epic domestic contemporary drama that breaks its own boundaries, takes on the life of a nation and illuminates something of a part of the world, the Balkans, we know so little about, not least in this centenary year of the Great War which started in, and in many ways re-defined, that locality.

"All Serbs and Croats live, perforce, with their nation's politics very close under their skin"

And as Howard Davies's wonderfully cast and orchestrated production exerts its grip, strong performances emerge from Adrian Rawlins and Siobhan Finneran as Vlado and Masha Kos, the lynchpin married couple of the saga, and Sophie Rundle and Jodie McNee as their daughters, Lucia and Alisa, the latter a London-educated lesbian firebrand with a gift for seeing the broader perspective in commerce and politics through a narrow tunnel of the gender agenda.

Wedding day preparations for Lucia follow a grim dissolution of their aunt's marriage to Daniel Flynn's ferociously violent Karl, an episode analogous to the disastrous military crimes being perpetrated on the newsreel footage. This footage, usually a tiresome gimmick, serves a real dramatic and informative purpose in Tim Hatley's design, which grows towards a coherent visual melding, flecked with photographic checks on the big players – Tito, the Serbian leader Milosevic, the Croati-an president Tudjman – during this traumatic modern period of change and upheaval which started, really, when Tito died in 1980.

All Serbs and Croats live, perforce, with their nation's politics very close under their skin, and you get a real sense of this in the performance of these characters, even the side-lined elder generation of James Laurenson and Susan Engel, all of the genealogical twists unravelling from the first scene when Jo Herbert's displaced Rose King is brutally assigned an identity by Gerald Kyd's communist official.

Three Winters continues in the National Theatre Lyttelton until 3 February 2015