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Zrinka Cvitešić is a Croatian actress playing a Czech woman in an Irish musical on the London stage.

Multiculturalism is important to Zrinka in all of her work. In 2010 she starred in On the Path (Na putu), a film shot in Serbia with collaborators from all over the Balkans and Europe. She highly values projects like it.

Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) in Once. Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) in Once. Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

‘I think it’s a good way of trying to combine all those parts of ex-Yugoslavia again,’ she told me in a phone interview from Dublin, where she’s working on her latest international production. Shes has actively sought out work in many countries in the Balkans. In On the Path she played a Serbian woman in love with an Albanian man at the end of the war-torn 1990s.

Zrinka recounted the resonance of the film for one viewer. ‘She said that after ten minutes she forgot that it was a Serbian woman and an Albanian guy, they’re just human beings in love with each other.’ She refuses to allow historical differences to pull apart the Balkans. ‘I feel that art really is a powerful weapon to fight all these things.’

Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) in Once. Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) in Once. Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

Her current work of art is a stage production of Once, an unorthodox love story between a Czech woman and an Irish man, two nameless characters who meet by accident in a Dublin street. This is what brought her to Dublin, where Once launched before a transfer to the West End.

Zrinka aptly describes Once as an anti-musical. ‘We live in such an advanced time when you feel like there is little left for human beings to create. Everything becomes big. You come to the theatre expecting to watch a musical with loads of crazy effects. And this play is so small. I think we kind of miss simple things.’

Its simplicity might make Once seem like an easy musical to tackle, but it has a cult following which brings high expectations. Zrinka told me about a dedicated group of Americans who loved the Broadway production so much they travelled all the way to Dublin to see it again.

‘They said they liked both shows, but that the Broadway one was clean and beautiful and this one is dirty and from the guts.’ Praise indeed from such die-hard fans. But Zrinka wasn’t allowed to see the Broadway show, or even the film from which the musical is adapted. The director wanted his cast to have an open mind when approaching the work. ‘He said: You’re European actors, this is a European story.’

Their European approach, which draws on the myriad cultures of the cast, has been successful so far. The reviews in Dublin have been positive. Zrinka and her co-stars have met with standing ovations throughout the run, which is not typical at the venue. Zrinka expresses trepidation, however, about the harder-to-please West End audiences.

She hasn’t spent much time in London but is full of enthusiasm about the city and plans to do and see as much as she can. At the top of her agenda when she finally gets a day off will be to see Helen Mirren in the Audience, another recently acclaimed show.

As she embraces her new life in London, Zrinka says she will maintain ties to her Balkan culture. She has been asked to host a potential Croatian Film Festival and made friends with a group of Bosnian designers during London Fashion Week. The Croatian ambassador is also planning a party in her honour.

The west end cast of Once.  Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

The west end cast of Once. Photo Credit Manuel Harlan

Despite her willingness to embrace other Yugoslav nationalities, Zrinka is very patriotic. She is quick to dispel my belief that the Croatian arts scene isn’t well recognised worldwide, boasting about the number of theatre festivals the country hosts, which are, she insists, world class. She is part of the Croatian National Theatre (one of more than twenty theatres in the city, I’m told) where she has played a number of major roles.

She is one of Croatia’s biggest stars but is very easy to talk to. She is friendly, laughs a lot and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.

Her openness gave me the opportunity to ask her about the war, which she lived through as a young girl. During the war, her family was forced to flee their home in Karlovac, and lived as refugees in a shelter for a year.

Zrinka’s frustration is evident when she talks about the fraught relationships between the different countries of the former Yugoslavia. ‘The only thing I see is how stupid we all are. I think the only thing we can really do is just try to find good in every person in life, just think positively and give more than we receive. I think that will lead to the right path.’

She is refreshingly positive about the political tension in the region. ‘It’s a common energy but a little bit different.’ It is the common energy that Zrinka embraces in her work, and this latest production is another testament to this.

Once opens Saturday 16th March at the Phoenix Theatre. Tickets can be bought here: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/once/phoenix-theatre/

Photos courtesy of Premier Communications.

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