Norway seems the remotest of countries to me: almost as mysterious as any on Earth. Perhaps the fact it’s the second least densely populated country in Europe is what lends the very particular, lonely aesthetic to Jon Fosse’s play, Winter, which has just opened, for a short season, at ye ol’ 505.
Jon Wald directs Susie Lindeman and Berynn Schwerdt in this spare meditation on the sometimes serendipitous intersection between strangers, who become fast friends, lovers, or, well, something. In a desolate park, with frost underfoot, a well-dressed man, looking a little lost and disconsolate, hovers. He is at a loose end, idling away time on the way to a business appointment. A waif of a woman, looking down on her luck, calls out to him, in imaginary recognition. It’s a recognition they both seek, but are quick to deny. By turns, they enter into a game of cat and mouse.
“This intense two-hander is an abstract theatre-poem paring back human experience to its very essence”, waxes 505’s promotional material. As it happens, it’s an apt and accurate encapsulation. Strictly not for fans of on-a-platter narrative, or social realism prepared earlier, Fosse, Europe’s most-performed playwright, throws caution and convention to the wind in the way he conceived and writes drama: nameless characters; this isn’t cheap Thai, so there’s no real “takeaway”; in a sense, I s’pose, it’s Beckett sets sail for Scandinavia. Call it oblique. Abstract. Whatever you will.
Wald directs his well-cast leads thoughtfully, almost meticulously. Schwerdt is as you might imagine a middle-class man who lives in a comparatively cold climate: reserved; contained; cool. Lindeman’s character, by contrast, is probably just this side of psychotic. Or is it just that her hopes, dreams and aspirations have so consumed her they’ve staged at least a partial takeover of her rational mind?
Some will mistake the coldness of the setting, truncated dialogue and antiseptic affection between the would-be couple as Fosse’s inability to reflect the warmth between people, but I read it as a reflection on the coldness of the world around them, which infects them by way of doubt, suspicion and reticence. It hardly needs stating that intimate relationships are fraught with difficulty. So for two desperate, isolated people who didn’t grow up with the internet, a frozen park may be as good a place as any to strike a match.
In a tight hour, Fosse distills the progress and process of a relationship, reducing and concentrating the emotional trajectory, running the gauntlet of intense emotional experience inevitably implicated in human collision: curiosity; flirtation; longing; lust; jealousy; fear. And despite the seemingly detached incompleteness of the dialogue, reading between the lines reveals an almost searing heat. Indeed, what Fosse hasn’t written is as carefully weighed as what he has and therein lies the distinctive power of this work.
Fosse achieves what precious few dramatists do: he has altered the form itself, fashioning it to his own ends. The result is compelling. Even time seems to bend in his favour. This man and woman, once you strip away their almost fastidious civility, prowl around each other like hungry jungle animals, determined to feed. Outwardly, there’s modesty and polite denial of their carnality, yet this, ironically, serves to emphasise it.
Vitality is sustained by the role-swapping of pursuer and pursued: the pair are, by turns, aloof or cloyingly proximate.
Of (low, or non-existent) budgetary necessity, the stage is simple in design: an oblong, lime green panel affixed to the wall must suffice as a hotel window. A honeycomb of hexagonal cardboard shapes doubles as park bench and bed. Crunchy, off-white, shag pile, synthetic ‘carpet’ puts snow underfoot. The rest is down to our imagination, that so oft underestimated prop.
Wald, Lindeman and Schwerdt are the principal spokes that make this unassuming, little play unfurl as fluently as it does. Putting that little vaunted prop to good use once again, it’s easy to picture this work on a mainstream stage, with but a small fistful of dollars deployed for more sophisticated design. It begs little else.