Jon Fosse: All the world loves his plays. Why don't we?

Europe's most performed writer can't crack the UK. Brian Logan asks the author if his new play will

Brace yourself for a smack to the national pride: the most performed European playwright alive is not Tom Stoppard , Alan Ayckbourn or Ray Cooney. It's a (whisper it!) Norwegian, called Jon Fosse.

Fosse has had 900 productions staged in more than 40 languages. "My plays travel extremely well," he says, not wasting time with false modesty. "And they have been well received everywhere – except here in England."

Is that his problem, or ours? "I manage perfectly well as I am," he smiles. "But for you, it ought to be something worth reflecting on."

Fighting talk, Jon – or "yawn", as it's pronounced in Norwegian – a point tartly made by The Independent's critic when Fosse's Nightsongs nose-dived at the Royal Court in 2002. Fosse has been on the end of some savage reviews in the UK. "Wretchedly pretentious, interminably boring," wailed the Daily Telegraph, of Nightsongs. "Like an irritating puzzle that you feel you ought to try to solve, but offers few prizes when you do," grumbled The Guardian on his 2005 play Warm. But today, on the eve of his latest tilt at British audiences – a Young Vic production of I am the Wind (2008) – Fosse isn't interested in conciliation. "I know the quality of my plays, and the English critics can say what the hell they want."

I'm making him sound chippy, and he isn't. Over a beer on the Young Vic's balcony, Fosse, aged 51, is open and thoughtful. He's also in a good mood, because this evening, Oberon Books is to launch a new edition of his plays. Soon, his whole oeuvre will be available in English – a remarkable feat for this former journalist and novelist who only reluctantly turned to drama in his thirties. "I didn't like the theatre," he recalls. "I thought it was stupid in its conventionality – as it often still is. The audience behaves in a conventional way, the play is conventional. It's not art, it's just conventionality."

And yet, drama caters to his interests as a writer. "In a novel, you have to use words all the time," he says. "In a play, you can use the pauses, the breaks and the silences: what's not said, which is what I'm saying something about, even in my prose. That was a revelation." Fosse's writing is all about rhythm and silence. The writers he's most often compared with are Beckett and Pinter – but he's less naturalistic, more liturgical than either. His plot-lite, abstract theatre-poems pare back human experience to half-banal, half-mythical simplicity. One character in I am the Wind says:

"Everything's so visible

Everything can be seen

The things that people hide with what they say

The things maybe they don't even know about themselves

I see all of that."

It could be Fosse, speaking about himself.

This open-endedness to Fosse's writing, its lack of specificity, explains its global appeal. It also suggests why the work hasn't prospered in the UK, where we're hooked on social realism, and phobic of what the Europeans call "post-dramatic theatre". Fosse feels his plays have been ill-served by their UK productions. "My writing can't cope with complete naturalism. It just disappears." He is flummoxed by theatre that paints "naturalistic portraits of society. That's a very peculiar English concept."

His own plays are written in the New Norwegian, or Nynorsk, language, a synthetic form "which is never really spoken by anyone. It's the same with French and German theatre: their theatrical language is not the way you speak in the streets. In England, theatre is connected to dialect and what level of society you're speaking from. Elsewhere, it's a poetical reflection of the basics of life."

That describes I am the Wind to a tee. Translated ("as loyally as possible," says Fosse) by playwright Simon Stephens, it depicts two young men, played by Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey, voyaging out to sea in a boat. Their conversation throbs with what Fosse calls "the basic music of life": sparse phrases; near-misses in communication between them; reflections on their inability to articulate how they feel. The Young Vic production's French director, Patrice Chéreau, thinks the play is about depression, which Fosse doesn't deny. But he won't – can't – explain I am the Wind. His plays, he tells me, are written automatically. "I sit and listen," he says, closing his eyes and leaning back. "I write from what I hear. I didn't know this story and these two figures before I wrote the play. That's the great thing: I go into the unknown and I come back with something I didn't know about before."

A recipient of France's National Order of Merit in 2007, Fosse last year succeeded Peter Brook as winner of the Ibsen prize (named for the compatriot with whom he is compared). Its citation located Fosse "between the darkness of depression and light of mysticism." I expect him to reject the "mysticism" tag, but he credits its accuracy. "I am," he says, "a Christian and a mystic." A non-believer as a young man, "what changed me," says Fosse, "was writing. If you manage to write a poem, the magic, or the enigma, or the epiphany of that experience means you can't be an atheist." This sounds like a pretty humanist take on spirituality, but that's not how Fosse sees it. His writing process, he says, "is a religious experience, no doubt. I don't know where my words come from. What I can prove is that I've written forty plays and published fifty books. But I can't tell you where they're coming from. I don't know myself."

In any case, they're about to stop coming: Fosse has forsaken theatre. Global success, he says, has "overwhelmed" him. "I never had an ambition to be a celebrated writer," he says. "It has surprised me, this huge success. And if I stick to the success, then I lose myself. So I need to depart from it." How ironic, if British theatre finally takes Fosse to its heart, just as he abjures drama for good. For all his affected insouciance, I reckon Fosse would love that to happen. But he's not holding his breath. "I know the quality of I am the Wind," he tells me. "But I've told Patrice Chéreau that this production will be hated completely. I've prepared him for it."

'I am the Wind' runs from Wed to 21 May at the Young Vic, London

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?