When The Black Rider, which opens the Hong Kong Arts Festival on Tuesday, was first performed in Hamburg seven years ago, critics were taken aback. Not because it was a remarkable piece of theatre, so clever, but because it was so enjoyable. Director Robert Wilson has established himself as one of the most prolific, and uncompromising directors of the past 30 years, creating stunning, complex pieces that have kept audiences and critics in raptures, although rarely in stitches. The Black Rider showed the world a side of Wilson no one had quite expected, and was the first of three 'rock opera' collaborations with rock musicians. He worked with Tom Waits and William Burroughs to re-tell the traditional German tale of a poor clerk who needs to win a shooting competition to win his beloved's hand in marriage, and is tempted by the offer of magic bullets that never miss. When we met in Hamburg, backstage at the Thalia Theatre, last December where the last performance of The Black Rider in its original home had just taken place, he was obviously quite taken aback by his most successful creation too. It had been a long time since he had seen the show, such a long time he had forgotten some of it. 'I said to the people I was with, 'I can't remember what happens in the second act!'.' What he had seen enchanted him, and he spent what little time he had in Hamburg before jetting off to another production. He argued with the management of the Thalia after the show about organising another tour. (Hong Kong is supposed to be the last performance, ever). Wilson works mainly in Europe, where his considerable supporters in the theatre world rate him as one of the greatest theatre directors of the century, and more generous public funding of the arts pays for the painstaking attention to detail he insists on. He has cues for lighting his characters' fingers for example, and insists that all stage props be made especially for his shows. His trademarks are utterly unreal sets, the juxtaposition of unexpected ideas, incredibly precise, slow movements, and a rejection of the psychology in drama. What the audience can see is everything in a Wilson production. He trained as a visual artist, and still considers himself one, although he spends most of his time now working in the theatre. 'For me all theatre is dance that has structure. Then one adds text, songs, music - that is what I do because I am a visual artist. Making theatre is making pictures,' he said. Wilson has the manner of one of those characters in a Woody Allen movie, overheard at a sophisticated party hooting over some poor fool's ridiculous new interpretation of Proust. He makes sweeping, unanswerable statements like, 'I hate naturalism', or, 'I hate intellectual theatre. Theatre is a total experience, one must use one's whole body. The mind is just another muscle'. Malraux and footage of mothers and babies creep into his conversation: 'It's as Malraux said . . . ' he begins, 'and each time they showed the mothers the film they were horrified'. And he has harsh words for everything in theatre that is not in line with his ultra-formal, stylised way of doing things. 'Look at Broadway! They are using a musical form that is 50 years old! This is what The Black Rider is not. It is not Cats, it's a dog.' He looks like a character from a New York movie, but he is actually a Texan, although the only things about him that are particularly Texan are his great height and his famous ability to take things very slowly indeed. It is hard to know whether he intends to sound pretentious, or whether perhaps he is playing the role of the artiste for a visiting hack. One of his favourite tricks in media interviews, presumably to press home his point that everything he does is about the visuals, is to snatch away the journalist's notebook and scribble a little diagram in it to explain what he is saying. A man from Britain's Independent newspaper was terribly pleased with his, they 'illuminated his [Wilson's] art'. Mine just looks like a pair of dumbbells with the letters C and E painted on them. I should be grateful really. At least he answered my questions, however cryptically. When the novelist Edmund White flew from Paris to interview him in New York some years ago, Wilson decreed that the interview should take the form of a guided tour of his apartment, and refused to let White ask him anything at all. Is he being a bit sarcastic when he says he hates intellectual theatre, when he says his plays have no meaning except what you see? Even those who work with him are not quite sure. Annette Paulmann, who he discovered as a student more than 10 years ago, and who had her first major role in The Black Rider, still doesn't know what to make of him. 'The reason he works in Germany is because we have the money. I don't think he likes German actors. He says they think too much. Sometimes in rehearsals, you see him falling in love with an actor. Then the next day, he is huffing and puffing. Sometimes he really likes me, and other times, I feel like he can't bear me.' Wilson is extremely precise about exactly what he wants his performers to do, which is both liberating and suffocating. He shows them exactly how he wants them to move, and to where. There is no discussion of what the inner motivation of a character is about. Such subjects do not interest him. One of the most memorable things about the character of Pegleg, played by Dominique Horwitz, in The Black Rider is his lolloping limp. Horwitz says Wilson showed him exactly how he wanted him to do it. But he didn't give him any help at all with playing Satan. 'He is not interested in the psychology of the role, or of the actor. He is not the guy to say 'and how are you?'.' For Stefan Kurt, who plays the unfortunate hero Wilhelm, the space was 'releasing'. 'I love it! You don't know whether you are a good guy or a bad guy.' It is quite a relief to hear that even some of his long-term collaborators don't really understand the way Wilson works - they only know that it works. And that is exactly the point Wilson wants to make. The complex, stunning images he creates on stage can mean whatever anyone wants them to. 'Each night each line can be different. So one has to be open to those different meanings, because we can't ever possibly comprehend all of them.'