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
Sunday 01 May 2011
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
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