John Berger on Sally Potter

By Sophie Mayer

john-berger.jpgJohn Berger

In the same week that Sally Potter’s highly-anticipated production of Carmen opened, John Berger visited London for the launch of his essay collection Hold Everything Dear (Verso), which was accompanied by two events for Vertigo. In between, Berger attended a performance of Carmen. Potter and Berger had previously struck up a friendship after Berger saw Potter’s The Tango Lesson which led to him providing a foreword for her screenplay for YES (2005) (also in Vertigo 2:8).

The staging of Carmen revisits some of the themes of YES, which resonate with his writing: on an intimate scale, the moment of desire and holding; on a political scale, the impact of social exclusion which Berger calls – and Potter stages as – the Wall. YES, Carmen and Hold Everything Dear all consider the interconnections of the two – and the possibility that the former holds for disarranging the latter.

Struck by Alice Coote’s unusually earthy and powerful Carmen, her instant kinship across the Wall with José (Julian Gavin), I remembered a passage in Berger’s essay “Undefeated Despair.” He imagines the voice of a political prisoner, reflecting on the soldiers: “They’re in prison just as we are. The difference is we believe what got us there, and they mostly don’t, because they’re just there to earn a living. I know of some friendships that began like that. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.”

Potter’s Carmen is a sex worker, a refugee, an illegal immigrant slipping through the Wall, a massive curve of negation as designed by Es Devlin – of a detention centre? of a gated community? – that Jose, who is from a poor village, guards. They are drawn together not by a hypersexualised fantasy, but by this stance of exclusion that they share. They are actors in our world, not an Orientalised fantasy.

So I asked Berger: how does Sally Potter’s Carmen live in our world?

carmen-sally-potter.jpgCarmen, Sally Potter

John Berger “The resonances usually given to Carmen are exotic, and with a mixture of slight disapproval and fascination with which outsiders like gypsies have been regarded. What Potter does is to change the resonances, so they are indeed about poverty and wealth, the Wall, the guards who make up the male Chorus, the surveillance footage projected on the gauze, all these things come back in the real world to what happens between the defensive rich, richer than ever and the poor made poorer than ever. When I was watching it, I was of course thinking of the Wall – the walls that everywhere in one way or another the rich are terrified of the poor that they are creating. It’s present right from the beginning, and it’s very powerful in the last act.

On one hand, there is a classical opera which in many countries, certainly in Britain, is a somewhat elitist art form, and this is immediately reflected in the prices you have to pay. But on the other hand, if we think of operetta, which is another form of opera, this was – in the past – a very popular art form, in Italy and France. It seems to me that in Potter’s production she completely breaks out of this elitist tradition, she breaks through it. I think it’s also quite important to say this: the fact that Potter modernises it, makes it contemporary, this is not so special – many opera productions have done that – what’s really original about this is its physicality, the way she anatomises it.

Normally when Carmen is performed in the theatre it’s an exotic tale of faraway. There are a couple of films, including Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (1984), where this is no longer true, because in cinema you can get inside – or very close – to people. What this staging of Carmen does is that, far from it being an exotic story, it is about something almost biological which in different degrees exists in all of us; in other words the impulses that Carmen embodies we can all recognise within ourselves, whether men or women. All the time I was thinking that Carmen, in her red dress, was like our red corpuscles, and that what we’re watching is a kind of bloodstream, which if we’re courageous enough we can recognise in ourselves.

carmen-sally-potter-default.jpgCarmen, Sally Potter

When I say that it sounds an extravagant metaphor, but that’s what I find so remarkable about Potter’s Carmen is that: if we’re thinking of red corpuscles, and at the same time the whole drama of the story, these are on two very different scales. She realises this in the way that she uses the video projections in the first Act. When you see the real Jose, he’s like a tiny little detail in a painting, and across the rest of the stage is a screen with these huge projections, which concern feelings which are as large as a continent. Potter plays with scale all the time. In the third act, with the incredible invention of the elevated glass bridge that spans the stage, which at a certain moment becomes as narrow as a horizon… all the time she is playing with scale: what’s small but near, huge but far away.

That quality of cinema is in a way the opposite of a theatrical spectacle, its quality of going very close to a body or a face, so that it becomes very intimate. At the same time because it is projected on that grey silk screen, it has something of the sky, of the measureless, about it, so that you have a strange juxtaposition of extreme close-up, such as can only occur in an intimate relation, and this galactic quality of the sky. And it seems to me that Potter’s production does exactly that: the smallness of a blood corpuscle and the vastness of the desires and longings and fears that the human body can experience, and it plays between those in all kinds of ways all the time – so it is the exact opposite of an elaborate wedding cake spectacle which old-fashioned opera could resemble.

The introduction of the dancers and the tangos that shadow the singers is absolutely breathtaking to me. One of the functions of the incredible tango sequences, especially the last one in the overture to Act Four, is that they highlight a very contradictory mixture of physical and moral, mind and body, a wonderful reminder and insistence upon that in relation to the story that we’re following. That drama is something which every physical body can some degree know, even if it has never enacted it – and there are many who have enacted it. The tango is not arbitrary, but an essential part of her vision. It is another way of reminding us that what we’re talking about is not the story of a wild woman and the pious moral judgements made upon her (although that is in the story) but it’s actually about what exists – how the dramas of that struggle exist in our bodies.”

carmen-sally-potter-3.jpgCarmen, Sally Potter

Carmen’s struggle is for freedom, which she expressed as the freedom to love – that is, to want – but (or of course) this is also and always political for Potter. In “Wanting Now,” Berger foresees this extraordinary Carmen, connecting with the same energy that Potter throws against the Wall:

“Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.”

Dr. Sophie Mayer is currently the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Screen Media and Cultures Group at the University of Cambridge. Her book The Cinema of Sally Potter will be published by Wallflower in 2008. She is the Education Co-ordinator for SP-ARK, the Sally Potter Online Archive.

Carmen Images Copyright TRISTRAM KENTON and ENO