A picture from the drama Muse by Jon Fosse
Jon Fosse meets me in the foyer of my Oslo hotel. He takes me by the elbow over to the front desk where, stencilled on the wall, there's a small paragraph of text. "Part of a novel of mine," says Fosse, who then lowers his voice to a hiss. "Upstairs, there is a whole Jon Fosse room." I can't tell if he's thrilled or mortified.
It isn't every playwright who gets a hotel suite named after them, particularly when they're still breathing. But Fosse is no ordinary playwright. One of Norway's most famous writers, he is also perhaps Europe's most-performed living dramatist, translated into 40-odd languages. In 2010, he won the biggest prize in global theatre, the £275,000 Ibsen award, three years after being awarded France's Ordre National du Mérite; last October, before the Nobel prize for literature was awarded, there was a flurry of excitement when it looked like 2013 might be Fosse's year (it turned out to be Alice Munro's instead). In the circumstances, I say as we sit down in a nearby cafe, having your own hotel suite seems only right.
Apologetically, he explains that he's never used it: he has an official residence nearby, courtesy of Norway's royal family. "It's part of the palace. To be absolutely honest, I didn't really want it. But they convinced me." He shrugs, cheerfully perplexed. One country, however, has remained stubbornly immune to Fosse's talents: the UK. The last major production of his work - a version of his play I Am the Wind by the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau at London's Young Vic in 2011 - met with polite but muted reviews. Nine years before, Katie Mitchell's staging of Nightsongs at the Royal Court was such a flop that even Mitchell has admitted it was a failure.
British critics have generally been puzzled by what confronts them in his work. Even fans find themselves baffled: the Independent's reviewer, despite admitting that I Am the Wind contained some of the greatest theatre he had ever seen, wrote: "I wonder if I understand Jon Fosse's play." When we talk about the upcoming UK premiere of 2005's The Dead Dogs, a comfortless tale of a young man marooned inside his mother's flat, Fosse claims not to care what the critics will say, or if his plays - now fully translated into English - will ever find a home on British stages.
"I think there's a fear of what is different," he says. "It makes your theatre unique, but sometimes in a stupid way, like your attitude to the World Cup. You're still the champions even if Germany wins, because you invented football." Anyway, perhaps comprehension isn't really the point. Spare and unyielding, his scripts - more than 30 in all, not to mention a sizeable stack of adaptations, novels and essays - circle obsessively around the perplexities of meaning. His first play, 1995's Someone Is going to come, centers on a couple who have just moved into a dilapidated house: she is crippled by the fear that they're not alone, he by jealousy.
Their conversation is fractious - intimate, but never quite connecting. Those traits also shape a later trilogy, themed around summer, autumn and winter: in the first, a woman pieces together the day her husband disappeared at sea; in the second, two strangers meet in a graveyard, yet have somehow known each other for a lifetime. The third, concerning a prostitute and a businessman, is a complex fugue of mistaken desire and cross purposes, rendered in language of numb precision: "It's not like that," she says when he suggests they leave together. "It's all like that," he replies. With its heavy silences and splintered dialogue, his work has reminded some of Beckett, others of Pinter. Fosse concedes there are similarities: "Pinter said his plays weren't about lack of communication, but about too much communication. I would say the same: my people communicate without words. They already know what's going to be said."
Perhaps inevitably for a country not overburdened with globally famous dramatists, his name has also been yoked to the biggest Norwegian of the lot, Ibsen. He shrugs. "When I started to be produced abroad, they all started saying that. My standard answer is that it's unfair to Ibsen - and also to me." Now 54, Fosse was born on a remote farm near Haugesund on Norway's west coast, near the mouth of the mighty Hardanger fjord. Though he now divides his time between Austria and Oslo, he still keeps a cottage in the area and, though his settings are abstract, the savage grandeur of the landscape (its fishing cottages and isolated villages, the lure of a dangerous sea) seeps into his work. Is it autobiographical? "Of course, but it is - how to say it - double, both ways.
I couldn't write a play like I Am the Wind without knowing anything about the sea. But the universe of the play is created from zero. I prefer not to know anything before I start. I usually compare writing to listening: I don't know exactly what I'm listening for, but I try to listen anyway." Fosse only turned to theatre in his mid-30s, after making his name as a novelist. If his plays sometimes seem unsure whether they're drama or something more expressly poetic, this may simply be a reflection of his attitude to theatre in general. He once said collaborations were like "group sex". What did he mean? He laughs. "That was more about the writing process. I need freedom and solitude for my writing. When I started to write for theatre, I wondered how to control it and decided I couldn't. I had to let it go." He smiles. "But theatre at its best has something sacred to it. It's more like a sacrament than group sex. At least the kind of theatre I like." Fosse has the air of a man who has faced his share of demons. I wonder if that could explain much of the desolation in