Finding the word to break the ice

For Jon Fosse, what's left unsaid is as important as what's said

For Jon Fosse, what's left unsaid is as important as what's said. 'I use the empty spaces between the persons and the words, and everything,' the Norwegian playwright tells Belinda McKeon

Is it actually winter in Jon Fosse's play of the same name? It's hard to tell. Fosse's enigmatic characters, simply named Man and Woman, stumble their way into a relationship that seems at first abusive, then startling, then touched by tenderness and anticipation, but the influence of the cruellest season is difficult to discern. Only the blackouts between scenes, as the action moves from one stark space to another and back again, suggest the seemingly endless blackness that these months inflict on Fosse's native Norway, when weeks pass without more than a few hours of sunlight.

Perhaps the crises in which his characters find themselves, their moments of deep despair, give shape to a winter of their own making; the extremes of the external environment no longer really matter. Grown used to the outside darkness, Fosse's lovers barely even see it anymore.

Then again, it's surprising what you can accept once you put your mind to it. Fosse, little known in this country but actually the most widely produced modern playwright in Europe, acquired such a stoical approach to the world at a very early age.


In 1965, as a seven-year-old, he slipped on the ice that surrounded his family home and cut his wrist so badly that he was in danger of bleeding to death. He remembers, as his parents drove him to the doctor, staring out of the car window and thinking to himself, "Now I am looking at the house for the last time". Yet he wasn't frightened, he says. He felt in the experience "a big beauty", and relished the detachment from himself which it allowed; in fact, he believes, it was from that moment he knew he would become a writer.

Blood on the ice, shed by a small boy with a portentous gaze; it sounds as if M. Night Shyamalan was on the scene. And Fosse might well be less enamoured if the same vision occurred to one of his own three small children, or to his adult son from a previous marriage, with whom he and his wife now share their life in Bergen. But if his own childhood self comes across as having been much too morbid for his own good, the body of work which has resulted from such an intense relationship to life and death is strikingly devoid of the type of negativity which might be expected.

That much will be in evidence on Monday, when the first Irish production of one of Fosse's works opens at the Project Arts Centre. Winter, in a new English version by playwright and poet Vincent Woods, will be produced and directed by Rachel West, with design by Monica Frawley. The troubled leads will be played by Ann O'Neil and Gary Murphy, and Fosse will travel to Dublin this weekend to see the results.

But he's not expecting gloom and doom. "I don't think my plays are very pessimistic. But neither are they very optimistic. Sometimes, somewhere, in all the plays, as in Winter, there is a kind of peace. A kind of reconciliation. Yes, that closeness to death . . . in a way, it stayed with me. But I'm not thinking of it often. I prefer not to; like for everyone, that's the writer's way."

When Fosse sees the second preview of Winter tonight - an opening night is a beast he prefers to avoid - it will be his first encounter with the colloquial richness which has been infused into the austere rhythms of his own script; he has not yet read Woods's interpretation of the literal translation provided by Ann Henning Jocelyn. But this decision has come less from indifference or reluctance than from more practical realities.

"In the beginning, when there were not so many translations, I could take some part but by now there are so many. It would take too much time to have something to do with them all."

HIS CAREER AS a playwright has proved enormously successful; he has written more than 20 plays, been deemed "the Beckett of the 21st century" by Le Monde and, last year, became the youngest recipient of Norway's highest cultural honour, the Norsk Kulterråd Ærespris prize.

However, it might never have happened at all. When he set out as a writer in early 1980s, what he had in mind was prose, poetry, and the occasional essay or article - and this was a plan he stuck to for the next decade or so, writing some nine novels, almost as many books of poetry, and several collections of essays.

His reputation as the Renaissance Man of modern Norway gained strength. And, though he had been powerfully affected by a Norwegian translation of Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the age of 18, writing for stage was not something that genuinely appealed to him.

Beckett's work, after all, was something he had discovered as a text, not as a theatrical production, and it was as a craftsman of the written word that Beckett cast a spell on him.

"It's hard to explain," Fosse says now of that early encounter and its legacy. "I remember reading something about the soul of Beckett's sentences, and I think that's a good phrase, that his writing has a soul somehow. It's the quality of Beckett's writing which meant a lot to me, and which still does. Not specifically as a playwright. Yes, his plays have a strong theatrical quality, but they at the same time they have these pictures.

"If you compare him to, say, Chekhov, who has more of a dynamic of action in his plays, or Tennessee Williams, they are more genuine playwrights in many ways than Beckett. To me, Beckett is just a really, really great writer. And it doesn't matter if it's prose, or for the theatre, or whatever."

What brought Fosse, in the early 1990s, to become a writer for the theatre? It came about, as the aforementioned Williams might have put it, through the persistence of strangers.

"I had no plan or wish to write theatre. But some people in the Norwegian theatres thought that I might write well for the theatre, and they kept on asking me to. And when one of them had asked me for the fourth or fifth time I sat down and I tried to write a play, and I wrote it quite fast. And I thought, that was quite a good example, to write in that way."

The change in technique was more liberating than he had expected. The plays came quickly, and most of them focus on the difficulty of relationships. The experience of writing into life such highly-charged situations pushed Fosse towards developing a theatrical language to capture the strained, struggling speech of these encounters; in the sound of the inner voice, he discovered a depth that had not been available to him as a prose writer or poet.

"In my way of writing for the theatre, I use the empty spaces between the persons and the words, and everything," he says. "A literary book is not primarily based on the words, but on the action, the plot. The play can deal with the empty spaces, where there are a lot of tensions. Just a simple word can mean so much, yes or no, if it's said in the right situation. So you can give so much tension which has nothing to do with the meaning of a word in the normal way."

YET, IN WRITING his plays, he did not fully abandon the elements of his fictional worlds; sharp-eyed readers will notice Winter bears strong echoes of his 1992 novel, Lead and Water. There, a man en route to a meeting comes across a woman in a state of physical and emotional distress, and from his attempts to help her becomes involved in a relationship so strong that it destroys his marriage and career; though the story of Winter differs in structure, the broad detail of both works is similar.

Fosse has no difficulty admitting as much; in fact, it's a technique which produces some interesting relationships between his various works.

Winter is not a dramatisation of the novel"but more of a comment on the novel 10 years later. And I've written more plays in that way, based on the novels I wrote in the 1980s, and a couple of years ago I even wrote a short novel based on one of my plays. And it's fascinating for me as a writer, because of how the universe of the novel, and that of the play I write 10 years later, are linked and they communicate with one another".

Those who produce his work are finding more and more threads of connection. A Norwegian theatre will soon produce Winter as the sequel to Fosse's first play, Somebody's Going to Come, and two other plays, The Name and Nightsongs, have also been twinned in this way.

Fosse has no objection; his characters, he says, are of the sort to keep on going. "They're strong," he says. "And I don't say that to make myself interesting, but when I'm writing, I don't feel them as characters. I don't have a visual picture of them when I'm writing. Don't know their names, what they do for a living. They're more like fields of energy, fields of something human, and there's a tension between these fields. In that way, they are not like something taking part in real life. They stay in relation to one another and influence one another all the time." And a little matter like a prolonged midwinter is never going to keep them down.