New work from Swedish playwright Katie Berglof, Happy Yet? explores the reality of living with a relative suffering from mental health problems. But through its attempted humour, the production just ends up perpetuating stereotypes.
Mental health is an extremely difficult subject to stage, and even more difficult to stage well. It requires sensitivity, nuance and a real understanding of not only the subject matter but also of how an audience will process that subject matter. I believe that work about mental health needs to address stigmas and assumptions made by broader society about people with mental health problems. Unfortunately, whilst clearly well-intentioned, Happy Yet? doesn’t provide much of a perspective beyond the stereotypes.
Happy Yet? is the debut work of a young Swedish playwright Katie Berglof, and based upon her own experiences of growing up with a family member suffering from mental health problems. We see Katie herself reflected in the character of Nina – the young niece of Torsten, the play’s protagonist. Unfortunately, it is his behavior and characterisation that brings up the major issues. Whilst I can certainly believe Berglof may have experienced this behaviour from her relative and has based this narrative upon those experiences, Happy Yet?’s protaganist comes across as narcassistic, uncaring, idiotic, drunk and generally a bit of an arsehole. Whilst I do not think this was in any way intentional, the character of Torsten reads just like another tired stereotype of the mentally unwell.
There is not enough nuance in the character to justify the endless onslaught of bad behaviour, and no real link made between his illness and the way he acts. The relatives he lives with make endless complaints about his behavior but never really addresses it. It becomes a farce, the humour laying in our wondering at ‘what will Torsten do next?’. The play does have potential – it’s a brave thing to have written about and clearly comes from a desire to show the highs and lows of the reality of mental health problems. Perhaps the subject matter, or indeed the central character, was too close to Berglof for her to really unpick the painful and often ugly reality of mental illness, but the darkness of this topic is hidden behind the humour and it does the subject a disservice.
That is not to lay the blame entirely on the writing. The production itself feels under rehearsed, lacking in clear direction and the overacted performances do not help create the sensitivity this subject deserves. Torsten’s overacted and clowny performance only goes to further this stereotype of the mental ill as something to laugh at, and Sally and Henrik’s reactions to him seem to aim to create humor rather than a conversation about the difficulties they face in living with Torsten. Sally in particular is written and played as the nagging hysterical housewife, a sexist trope and one that adds nothing to the conversation about the subject matter. A myriad of other characters appear – current and ex girlfriends, a police officer, all of whom seem only there to create humor. I do not think a play about mental health needs to be wholly serious. Humor is a very valid way to approaching the subject matter. But there needs to be contrast, nuance, and there needs to be more attention to the lows as well.
I would also like to make a point about trigger warnings. This show contains mention and representation of suicide. There is no indication on the website that this is the case nor when you enter the theatre. With subject matter like this, it’s always fair and important to forewarn your audiences. I think the company intends to do very good work and it’s an admirable subject matter to take on. But it’s so important it’s done right, thinking clearly about how to help the image of mental illness and break down stigmas. I hope they continue their work, but perhaps think a little more carefully about exactly what it is they are trying to say.