Acting for justice
We posed three questions to Christoffer Mellgren, author of Cutting a Cake – A play about justice in six uneven slices.
In Finland, World Theatre Day will this year be marked with a stage reading of Christoffer Mellgren’s Cutting a Cake. World Theatre Day celebrates global responsibility, freedom of expression and the collective power of theatre. TINFO spoke to Christoffer Mellgren about freedom and responsibility and the way justice takes centre stage in his play.
Your play is framed around Host, a drama teacher, and his students discussing and acting out scenes from Hamlet. This creates a meta-play, that allows you to deconstruct Shakespeare’s classic tragedy but also critically examine its place in the canon and its status as the “greatest play ever written”.
The play-within-a-play concept means that you get to explore some of the really big questions like justice, solidarity and democracy. What does Hamlet bring to this set up? Why Hamlet and not another play?
The starting point for this play is justice. I was particularly interested in how justice is often trumped or even concealed by other words or phrases. One way to neutralise justice, to turn it into a non-issue, is to refuse to see yourself as a moral subject and to become someone who just simply chooses to live by the rules and norms that apply at any one time. ”I was just doing my job”, ”it’s what the law says”, ”I was only following orders” and so on.
The struggle of whether to do (or not to do) what’s expected of you chimes well with Hamlet, both in terms of the play and its main character, but also more broadly with the challenges involved in working with the classics. Should you follow what’s written on the page, to the letter, purely because it’s already there? Or can you change things?
In practical terms, this idea of playing around with Hamlet came to me as a result of this expectation that I felt had been placed on me as a dramatist. I wrote the play for Art Testers, a project that’s been set up to offer cultural experiences for all 15-year-olds in Finland. On the flyer, they had used a picture of Hamlet to illustrate the theatre part of the project. He’s shown in the classic pose, dressed like a prince and clutching a skull. I’d been handed a copy of the flyer before I started writing the play, and I felt like this was what I was expected to deliver: Hamlet, theatre with a capital T.
The part featuring Hamlet is a short and comical interlude in the play. But insofar as it’s also a tragedy, it’s Ophelia’s tragedy. Not because she does, inevitably, head off to the pond but because there is this hope that she’ll be able to hold her breath for the rest of this really long play, words, words, words, and then surface again just at the right time. If you do the play the way it was written, that would be impossible, so we do it differently here.
In Cutting a Cake, the drama students pose a series of questions for their teacher that explore the power dynamics inherent in theatre making. They’re interested in whether actors have to do exactly what’s been written in the script, for example. In that sense, your play appears to have this wider social dimension, with a particular focus on power dynamics within the work setting, including the theatre. What sort of power do playwrights, like yourself, possess in the context of the theatre, and what sort of responsibilities would you say are implicit in the act of writing for the stage?
It’s certainly not my view, or the view expressed in the text either, that just because something’s been written down you automatically have to do as it says. So every ”that’s what it says in the script” is an invitation to examine something critically rather than pin down a truth.
The way I see it, the issues around power and responsibility depend on the process itself – whether the text is being written as a collective effort or completed before the rehearsals and other aspects of the production kick off. I enjoy both approaches and a mixture of the two as well. When I write a text first, like with Cutting a Cake, I tend to want to have the right to complete ”my” script, a version that I’m personally happy with. But then I hand over the script to the theatre makers and they then have the same right to turn it into ”their” production. It’s all fairly straightforward, and I’m pretty unsentimental when it comes to texts I’ve already passed on.
If you do the play the way it was written, that would be impossible, so we do it differently here.
When you’re working collaboratively, it’s all a little harder to pin down, but you can still keep it simple, provided that there’s an atmosphere of mutual respect and a distinct lack of egos, and everyone’s genuinely engaged and curious.
On the eve of World Theatre Day, your play will receive a stage reading organised by TINFO and Teatteri Avoimet Ovet. World Theatre Day is an annual event that focuses on important global issues and themes that bring people together. As the International Theatre Institute’s (ITI) national centre in Finland, TINFO has in previous years organised events that focus on freedom of artistic expression and the limitations imposed on it. What, in your view, are some of the biggest global injustices facing us at the moment?
This is an incredibly vast issue, the scope of it is just bewildering. It’s about the way we distribute resources, trade, equality, education – and you can’t separate one from the other. At the risk of making a huge generalisation, it’s impossible not to mention the climate. Everything to do with climate change and the environment is also very much an issue of justice, both in terms of who’s expected to take what action and who will be affected and how. And this is perhaps what I’d like to say, and this comes out in the play too, that rather than debating which forms of injustice are the most important, we’d do well to identify issues of injustice that may well be branded as something completely different right now.
Christoffer Mellgren is a dramaturg and playwright who has worked at Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre and Viirus Theatre and is currently the director of Labbet, a non-profit organisation promoting new playwriting and new theatre forms within Swedish language theatre in Finland. He has also authored a handbook for young writers interested in writing for the stage.
TINFO / Sari Havukainen, 5.3.2021
Find out more about our World Theatre Day event A Slice of Finnish Drama and join the live stream on Friday, 26 March 2021.