The elderly man is clearly anxious, fingering through deep piles of paper on his desk and talking steadily into the telephone. "Can you check the green room? I'm looking for a piece of paper. Handwritten. My handwriting."
He hangs up the phone and sits perfectly still for so long it becomes uncomfortable, either trapped in subterranean deliberation or admiring the collection of South American headdress and wood art scattered about the austere but cavernous office space, next to the totemic Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin's Mitte district. Then finally, he remembers that he's not alone, runs a hand through his grey hair and sighs "OK, let's get started then".
"I wrote down an idea," Robert Wilson begins, looking somewhere between frustrated and perturbed. "But I've mislaid the piece of paper. I do hope it shows up." He is one of modern history's most exceptional artistic minds. It's futile even pondering what may have been lost - for if Robert Wilson's 45-year career as the stage's foremost maverick has taught us anything, it's to - as Oscar Wilde so famously recycled - expect the unexpected.
Wilson, 71, is in Berlin to prepare for what will be his second visit to WA, after directing the Stockholm City Theatre in Strindberg's A Dream Play for 2000's Perth International Arts Festival - an experience he recalls with a rare guffaw as "I think quite shocking, or surprising, for the (Perth) audience". This time, Wilson returns with Bertolt Brecht's masterwork The Threepenny Opera, performed by Brecht's own theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, in its inaugural visit to Australia.
Although Brecht's canon is as vast and colourful as the man's own life, it is The Threepenny Opera that remains one of his most enduring and loved works, alongside Mother Courage and Her Children. First performed in the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, the musical would leave its ubiquitous mark on popular culture with songs such as the Kurt Weill-penned Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) and give the stage and screen such archetypal characters as Macheath, Polly Peachum, Ginny Jenny and Jackie Brown.
While Wilson's somewhat radical interpretation of The Threepenny Opera has toured globally to considerable acclaim and box-office success since it debuted in 2007, Wilson agrees he wasn't a natural choice to direct Brecht's flagship work - perhaps most mischievously evident in his decision to write Lady Gaga's Bad Romance into the performance, among Weill's standards.
Born in 1941 in Waco, Texas, Wilson would escape his conservative upbringing for the more liberal north-east, arriving in Brooklyn to a world inhabited by beat poets, countercultural artists and ragtag philosophers, promising social upheaval and a good time while you were at it. Although studying to be an architect, Wilson fell in with a heady crowd that included a rollcall of postmodern art's leading insurgents in the US, such as composers Steve Reich, John Cage and Philip Glass, choreographers Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham and Lucinda Childs and visual artists Robert Morris and Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1968 - much to the dismay of his father, who was already frustrated by his son's homosexuality - Wilson abandoned architecture and formed his first performance art company, The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. A keen dancer and choreographer, his first works were as unpredictable as they were unfathomable to establishment art circles. His 1970 piece Deafman Glance was inspired by a deaf friend and featured more than 60 dancers performing fantastical and interpretive dance vignettes over more than seven hours in complete silence. He later eclipsed that audacious statement with a work entitled KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace that ran for seven days, and was staged in the foothills of Iran using untrained local actors.
It was during this fecund period Wilson developed his trademark dreamy/nightmarish visual style, where sound and movement are often muddled into one combustive sensory experience, and interspersed by the potent use of utter silence. It is a style that has endeared him to a contemporary audience and helped bridge the divide between classical and contemporary art and music, leading Wilson to collaborations with William S. Burroughs, Lou Reed, David Byrne and Tom Waits.
This radical departure from traditionalism was enhanced by Wilson's refusal to give any subtextual direction to his performers beyond the formal, like volume and metre. In fact, he encourages his performers to completely disregard any preconceived notion of meaning or intent in a text and simply act their part.
This approach would finally manifest in equal doses of bewilderment and acclaim with Einstein on the Beach, his 1976 collaboration with Glass and Childs. The work continues to sell out theatres worldwide, from Amsterdam to Mexico City and Hong Kong, and has been labelled a 20th century masterpiece by Susan Sontag.
"I don't like to know what it is I am doing," Wilson deadpans, removing his glasses and rubbing eyes that reveal his exhaustive obsession with reworking his shows, rather than merely restaging them. "I like to start with a blank book and no idea and then see what happens.
"Theatre today is more and more like television: 'Do you understand, do you get it, do you understand, do you get it' . . . like every 10 seconds. With Einstein if you try to understand something you'll go nuts, as there's nothing to understand - it's something you experience. It's OK to get lost. It's OK to get lost in Hamlet."
Wilson scribbles a rough diagram on a piece of paper with two letters encircled: C and E.
"You have a causal factor and an effectual factor," he says.
"Directors usually start with a cause and this cause will have an effect. I start with the effect. If I want to I can find a cause. Interpretation's not for the actor, director, or the playwright or the composer or the choreographer or the set designer or the costume makers - interpretation is for philosophers or the public."
Wilson - an untrained director who once explained his style as closer to watching animal behaviour than high culture - claims to have never heard of Bertolt Brecht when he was first asked to direct The Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 1970 by Brecht's son, Stefan, who was an admirer of Wilson's. He declined four times before finally relenting and going on to debut his first major triumph, Deafman Glance, in Paris in 1971.
But he would be unable to completely exorcise the hefty ghost of Bertolt Brecht, for in Wilson's Paris audience would be Brecht's widow, theatrical partner and leading lady Helene Weigel, who invited Wilson to Berlin to see her perform in her iconic role as Mother Courage. After negotiating his way into the then sealed East Berlin, Wilson would discover he'd arrived too late - Weigel had died two days before.
When the Berlin Wall finally tumbled in 1989, Wilson - by now having torpedoed into sacred theatrical territory with re-renderings of King Lear and Alcestis - was invited to co-direct the Berliner Ensemble by Germany's other sacrosanct dramatist of 20th century theatre, Heiner Muller. He again declined, even after Muller confided: "A lot of the things you talk about are similar to what Brecht talked about." Then in 1998, Wilson finally relented, joining the Berliner Ensemble to direct Brecht's The Flight Across the Ocean.
"Whether you're doing The Ring of Wagner or whether you're doing Hamlet, you have to respect the master," Wilson says, looking through a window to where a bronze statue of Brecht keeps the ravens company.
"But you have to be careful not to become a slave to it; you need to find your own way. I can't rewrite Hamlet, maybe the greatest play ever written. But there are some directors who are so respectful of the playwright and what they intended, that it's boring. I am sure a director like Peter Stein thinks I neglect my intellectual responsibility, but I don't care."