Jon Fosse is one of Europe’s most renowned living dramatists, the recipient of numerous awards and occupant of a grace-and-favour residence in the grounds of the Norwegian royal palace. Yet British stagings of his plays scarcely ever elicit more than polite responses. His style is spare, but not the kind of spare that suggests underlying profundity so much as the kind that asks us to take it on trust; we seldom do.
Director Simon Usher crystallises this approach in his UK premiere staging of Fosse’s 2004 play Dei døde hundane. The family (all unnamed) in this rural house speak with a stilted self-consciousness and a fondness for pauses and verbal tics that is distinctly Pinterian. However, Pinter’s menace is absent; one gets the feeling that this mood is due principally to those long Norwegian winter evenings that The Mother mentions at one point. Nor is there such a palpable vein of the absurd as in Pinter; our occasional giggles, and the more sustained laughter that breaks out when it is revealed that The Young Man’s beloved dog is lying dead outside the window, all feel transgressive and disrespectful. Perhaps Fosse’s humour is simply too dry for us, but given that The Young Man is fairly clearly a chronic clinical depressive, it seems more charitable to accept that the fault is ours in chuckling rather than Fosse’s in poking fun at such a condition.
At any rate, The Young Man, The Mother, The Sister, The Brother-in-Law and The Friend drift in and out, at first wondering where the dog is, then wondering why the offstage neighbour shot it, finally wondering in horror – or rather, not wondering, but not daring to voice the obvious question – who stabbed said neighbour to death. The final movement between Young Man and Mother epitomises Danny Horn’s and Valerie Gogan’s performances as the mainstays of the production; it is reminiscent of Ibsen’s Ghosts, until Fosse undercuts it … again, perhaps deliberately, but to us unsatisfyingly.
Usher’s production makes this feel less empty than some other Fosse plays seen here in the past, but still nowhere near as freighted with meaning as I suspect we are intended to believe.