Production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera.
ROBERT Wilson's career spans four decades and the globe. His work - meticulous, formal, abstract and often epic in scale - defies any easy categorisation but he's universally acknowledged as one of the greatest practitioners of experimental theatre, and is among the most celebrated theatre directors in the world.
Australia hosts two of his works in 2013. Next month, the Perth Festival has the Australian exclusive of his recent production of Threepenny Opera for the Berliner Ensemble; and a rare revival of Einstein on the Beach, his signature, avant-garde opera, comes to Melbourne's Arts Centre in July.
Talking to Wilson requires persistence. He is in rehearsal for a new opera opening in New York this week, has skipped his lunch break and worked an hour overtime. Now 71, Wilson's intensive rehearsal process takes its toll. When he finally greets me on the phone, I ask him how it went. Wilson sighs out a double ''OK'' that suggests doubt and fatigue. He seems glad to think about something else.
Director Robert Wilson. Photo: Hsu Ping
Wilson has an easy manner. Not a trace remains of his childhood speech difficulties, one formative experience that inspired him to reorientate the direction of language in the theatre.
His voice now is like honey in the desert, the fluid charm of New York sophistication over the dry Texan vowels of his birthplace. And he speaks around things, tracing circles in words, relaxed and deliberate, lulling the ear; so that when he does raise his voice with histrionic intensity, you get a bit of a shock.
His production of the Brecht/Weill musical Threepenny Opera, with Brecht's own company, comes with a story that goes back to the start of Wilson's career. ''I made my first play many years ago in the '60s,'' he says. ''It was silent, three hours long and we only did two performances. Brecht's son Stefan came to see it both times.''
''Your way of directing, your aesthetic, your sensibility is just right for my father's work,'' Wilson recalls him saying. He wanted to close an unsatisfactory production of Threepenny on Broadway, and get the young, unknown director to rework it.
Wilson declined. At the time, he knew nothing of Brecht or the theatre, his principal interest lying in painting and architecture. And he didn't know much more about Brecht in the late '70s, when the experimental German dramatist Heiner Muller remarked on the similarities between Brecht and Wilson's formal approach to the theatre.
Muller took charge of the Berliner Ensemble after German reunification in 1992, and asked Wilson to be co-director. Wilson refused again, ''I don't speak German. I wouldn't be qualified to run a theatre, nor would I want to.''
Wilson and Threepenny finally came together a few years ago, although the production that's coming to Perth was almost stymied by Brecht's fearsome daughter Barbara. ''The Berliner Ensemble asked me to do it, but Barbara Brecht said 'This is my brother's idea' and she didn't give me the rights. She wanted her daughter to direct it. That didn't turn out so well. It didn't work, so the company asked Barbara to reconsider.''
She relented, and a year later was invited to the premiere. ''The theatre was very nervous, because she's famous for closing productions by saying 'My father wanted it done like this' - Wilson's voice is a caricature of disapproving haughtiness - 'and I do not approve.'
''So Barbara came to the premiere. She wanted 10 tickets and the theatre said 'We'll only give her two'. I thought, Oh puhlease! and bought tickets for her. And no one saw her afterwards. So I wrote her a letter, weeks later. 'Dear Barbara Brecht, I'm very curious. What did you think of my production?' She wrote back: 'You respected his work. You have brought new life to it and made it relevant today. Papa would approve.' ''
You suspect that if this Threepenny seduced the gargoyle of Brecht's estate, it can seduce anyone. How did Wilson do it? Well, lighting design, for one thing. ''Light is the most important element of the theatre for me because it's the element that helps you hear and see,'' he says. ''There are two types of lines in the world - straight and curved - and I use them in an abstract manner. A lot of the design is drawings in space, with light.''
Wilson illuminates the stage by separating the senses in rehearsal. He treats the visual and aural components of theatre as separate languages, and then merges them.
The technique resonates with Brecht. ''In Brecht's epic theatre,'' Wilson says, ''all elements are important. The way text is used. The way an image becomes encoded in movement, gesture. Aesthetically we're very different, but the principles are very, very close to how I think about the theatre.''
So with his formal, ritualistic stagecraft, does Wilson hate naturalism? ''I do. I hate … people acting natural on stage is a lie! I can't stand it. To me theatre is artificial. The way you speak is artificial. The way you speak on a stage is not the same way you speak on the street - it's a craft, you have to learn it - the way you sit is not the same way you sit on a bus. The light is different, the floor is different. The air is different. If you accept that being on the stage is something artificial, to me that looks more natural.''
And maybe more honest. Intimidatingly, Wilson is on record as saying his work is ''not open to interpretation''. What does he mean?
''In formal theatre,'' he explains, ''there's a certain distance from the material. So you can present ideas but you don't try to insist that a person seeing it thinks what you think. The reason one works as an artist is to ask questions, that is to say, 'What is it?' and not to define what something is. If you know what it is, then don't do it. There's no reason to do it.''
Wilson's Threepenny Opera is at the Perth Festival, February 8-11. Einstein on the Beach is at Arts Centre Melbourne July 31 to August 4.