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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

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

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
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

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

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

film
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).
books
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
film
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’

Film

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

TV

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

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    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