Throughout his searing 31-year career, Chereau has always had an uncanny, unfailing eye for both quality and controversy. He began directing professionally at the age of 20, quickly acquiring the enfant terrible tag for dusky, sinuous, iconoclastic productions heavily influenced by both the Berliner Ensemble and Georgio Strehler's Piccolo Teatro. But it was in the hallowed halls of Europe's opera houses that he made his most discordant impact with a run of controversial productions, culminating in the infamous Chereau/ Boulez Ring at Bayreuth in 1976, which terrorised hidebound audiences with visions from a 19th-century industrial nightmare. The resulting furore guaranteed Chereau a place in the pantheon of experimentalists.
As artistic director in the Eighties of the Theatre des Amandiers in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, Chereau returned to the more serious task of building the modern French repertoire. It was here that his collaboration and his close personal friendship withKoltes, now considered one of France's foremost contemporary dramatists, came to fruition. After seeing Chereau's production of Marivaux's La Dispute, Koltes bombarded the director with letters until a meeting was arranged. Immediately, Chereau believed he had discovered a genius. "I will produce everything you write," he told him.
And for 10 years, until Koltes's death from Aids in 1989, this promise was fulfilled: Combat de Negres et de Chiens (1983), Quai Ouest (1986), Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton (1987) and Le Retour au Desert (1988). The only exception has been Roberto Zucco, a vicious nihilistic modern fable about an Italian serial killer, written in a frenzied rush of creativity while the author was succumbing to Aids. "Some day I will do it," Chereau says. "And then I will try to find another writer of his stature, if one exists."
Perched on a bar stool around the corner from the chaos of the Drill Hall, a new festival venue with a few teething problems, Chereau, now 50, seems to have shed the imposing manner that terrified interviewers in the past. Fresh from a production of Don Giovanni in Salzburg and appearing relaxed, gentle, sombre, he puts his good humour down to a recent decision to give up producing opera entirely: "I just refuse to go on signing contracts for 97, 98 or 99," he says. "I refuse because we arrive at a very terrifying and magical number - 2000. It would be so sad to know exactly on 20 January 2000 that I will do La Traviata in Covent Garden. I'm not starting the third millennium like that. Life is short. But it's not that short."
Instead, after the success of La Reine Margot, he intends to concentrate on film - a new project is now in the pipeline, a contemporary story focusing on Aids, employing the same team as La Reine Margot - and to make a more committed return to theatre. In the Edinburgh revival of Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton, Chereau makes his first stage appearance in almost a decade, taking over the part of the dealer. Instead of the original production's raucous confrontation between a black bluesman and a punk, Chereau will play the character as a downbeat hawker, while Pascal Greggory (co-star of Chereau's film La Reine Margot) will take on a much greyer, more anonymous client. "The first time I tried to follow exactly what Bernard wanted and exactly what he wrote. The play was actually based on a conversation between a Mississippi bluesman and an English punk. But I feel more free now, eight years on. And I think that by going against him, almost in spite of Koltes, we can go deeper into the text."
The play's premise is a simple transaction between two individuals, an archetypal situation that unravels into alternating monologues, exposing human fears, desires and objectives, as well as taking a few swipes at commodity culture. "The only frontier left," the dealer announces, "is the one between buyer and seller."
Both characters hope desperately to satisfy the other, but neither is honest enough to admit what they actually want to buy or sell. "It's a very common situation," says Chereau, "one that you'll find in life, love affairs and business, where one person says, 'Tell me what you want and I will give it to you.' And the other replies, 'No, first tell me what you have and I will tell you if I desire it.' For these two people, there will never be any possibility of making contact."
The original production, mounted in the gargantuan Les Halles de Schaerbeek in Brussels, was the epitome of a Chereau production: sleek, streamlined, gloomy and vast, charged with graceful energy and accompanied by impeccable production values, particularly the asphalt-ribbon set created by his long-time design collaborator Richard Peduzzi. Any of Koltes's more indulgent moments were doused in theatrical spirit and set triumphantly alight. And even though Chereau has now pared everything down and dismissed these excesses as just youthful euphoria, he is still confident of being proved right about this play just a few more times, at least until the end of the Edinburgh run.
"Everything is better this time round because we are older," he explains. "I am older and I have had a break from Koltes for eight years. I can see again this incredibly beautiful language. In the original production the characters were very cloaked, hidden. Now we are going back to the eternal laws of theatre: two actors and one text, very naked, very simple and very honest."
n 'Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton', 3pm; to 2 Sept, Drill Hall. EIF Box-office: 0131-225 5756Reuse content