Blog: Writing ‘Happy Yet?’: A fresh take on depression, anxiety and mental illness

Happy Yet? is the story of a middle-aged man, Torsten, and his inability to function within Swedish society. From an attic flat in Stockholm, Torsten wages battle not only with his brother and his sister-in-law – but with his own mercurial mind. This play tells the story of the Sandqvist family and their struggle to understand Torsten and his disordered moods and dysfunction. Torsten lives on his older brother’s living room floor. He can’t keep a job or a girlfriend- he is a pest. Yet, for all his lying, Torsten is lovable and the most profound person in the room.

Torsten is based, very closely- on my own uncle. I wrote Happy Yet? as a response to the trauma of losing him to suicide. I was young when he died, and unable to process his death. A few years ago, I began to write words down- quotes, stories, anything that reminded me of him. These disparate notes started to take on the shape of a play. Torsten’s words flowed naturally, and suddenly my uncle was alive again. I finished it, handed the script to my director friend Imogen Wyatt Corner and we jumped into putting Happy Yet? on at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe. Since last year’s performance the script has doubled in size, and I’ve rewritten and edited it for a limited run at the Courtyard Theatre in London. Yet, the play still feels unfinished to me. I think many playwrights and writers have difficulty deciding when a piece of work is finished- but my case feels a little different. Through Torsten, my uncle lives. Editing and revising Torsten’s character and his trajectory, is a kind of catharsis I thought I would never have.

I believe that for issues as complex as the mind and mental health, theatre and film may be the most powerful spaces for discussion. My uncle was depressed, but he was also the life and soul of every party- he was always laughing, at least when in public. With Happy Yet? I am trying to do justice to my uncle’s wit, and to everyone who has experienced the lows, but also the highs of living. The conversation surrounding mental health needs to change- nothing is black and white. Life-threatening cases are going unnoticed because of society’s obsession with categorising and labeling people rather than treating them as individuals.

Producing my own play, especially one with such a personal subject matter has been difficult. I want to raise awareness of the struggles of people suffering from anxiety, depression and mood swings. However, who am I to say that my individual case is representative of others and their issues? The most important thing to bear in mind when portraying mental ill health on stage is that each case is different. There are of course shared experiences, but I can only be truthful and fair to my own- and to my uncle’s. All I can hope is that it will resonate with someone in the audience. And more than that, I hope that for those that can’t identify with Torsten- they can still appreciate him. Through theatre we have the power to bring dignity to people like my uncle and their stories. Rather than subjecting everyone to the same stereotypes and labels, we can start to learn from each character individually.

Exploring issues surrounding mental health in Happy Yet? has only been possible as a team. The characters are emotional, yet comedic- and this can be very difficult to grasp as an actor. Our cast this year are truly inspiring- dedicated to addressing the stigma around mental health through their individual voices as characters, but also through their own experiences.

Happy Yet? is playing at The Courtyard Theatre until October 28. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.thecourtyard.org.uk/whatson/969/happy-yet

Katie Berglöf

Katie Berglöf

22-year old Katie Berglöf grew up in Stockholm, and just finished a degree in Philosophy and English Literature. Her first play Happy Yet? was performed at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and is now coming to London’s Courtyard Theatre 24-28 Oct. She hopes to continue writing and producing theatre focused on shifting attitudes towards mental illness.