In Zagreb stands an old, ivy-covered mansion. It has housed the Kos family for over seventy years, and there has not been a male child born into the Kos family for four generations. This is a story about the women of the Kos family: their loves, liberty and lives set against the social and political upheaval of Croatia’s history.

3 Winters is Tena Štivičić’s writing début at the National Theatre, and is certainly one to be remembered. Štivičić’s text has grand aspirations, intertwining great swathes of Croatia’s political history with the intricacies of family dramas over three time periods: 1945, 1990 and 2011. Each era marks a landmark event in the country’s history – the end of the Second World War, the breakup of Yugoslavia and possibility of EU membership – alongside seminal events for the Kos family: a homecoming, a funeral and a wedding.

Early scenes are a little swollen with exposition, but it feels important to lay adequate foundations for the entangled stories of a history that is likely to be unfamiliar to many in the British audience – I don’t recall Croatia being mentioned once in GCSE Modern History! As the play moves forward the fluidity improves and the exposition falls away to real dialogue, conversation and provocations. Director Howard Davies’s naturalistic style is essential in finding clarity within this complex narrative.

Women are at the heart of the story, progressing from domestic servitude to potential landowner, often rubbing up ideologically with contemporary expectations of female behaviour. The youngest generation, sisters Lucia (Sophie Rundle) and Alisa (Jodie McNee), drag the conventions and politicisation of female identity into the spotlight of interrogation. McNee gives a gutsy performance as the elder sister, questioning the quiet bourgeoisie behaviours into which her family have seemingly slipped. Rundle is magnetic as the petulant yet pragmatic younger sister, who dares to choose tradition, religion and a husband. Rundle’s final speech is so tenacious and visceral that the audience could not hold back their applause. Siobhan Finneran is almost painfully empathetic as Masha, their self-doubting mother who struggles through her optimistic attempts to adapt to near constant personal and political transitions. Finally Susan Engel (Karolina, in 1990) delivers much-appreciated comic relief with her dry and dark wit.

Designer Tim Hatley creates a magnificent home that literally moves through the years. The very near seamless scene changes are a work of theatrical magic, craftily tying the decades together with the assistance of Jon Driscoll’s indicative projections of harrowing news footage.

Davies’s production acts as an excellent advertisement for the National Theatre, as it showcases a standard of production, invention and story-telling that many venues would struggle to accommodate and execute. Yet it retains poignancy as each civic tumult is echoed in the microcosm of the family and each intimate occurrence illustrates a greater incident. 3 Winters does ask its audience to work, to piece the narrative together and to pay attention – but by the start of the second act the events are so compelling and the performance so powerful, I don’t see how you could turn away.

3 Winters is playing in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre until 3 February 2015. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.