“Why can’t you just be happy?” asks one of the characters in Katie Berglöf’s debut play, Happy yet? To people who’ve never lived with depression or anxiety, they can be difficult concepts to understand – particularly, perhaps, in Sweden, which is famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world.
Enter Torsten Sandqvist. He’s nearly 40, unemployed, and living in his brother and sister-in-law’s attic room in Stockholm. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been writing a play, but between staying in bed until 3pm and going out with a new girl each night, he’s not getting much work done. As his family grow ever more frustrated, the only person Torsten can really talk to is his young niece, Nina – but she never goes to school, and nobody else seems aware of her presence…
Inspired by the traumatic personal experience of losing her uncle to suicide, Katie Berglöf has written an enlightening, often troubling but just as often unexpectedly humorous depiction of what depression looks and feels like from both sides of the story. The most important lesson we learn is that depression doesn’t necessarily mean you’re miserable all the time. On a good day, Torsten is hilarious, wildly optimistic and everyone’s best friend (at one point, he convinces a police officer who’s come to arrest his brother to go drinking with him instead). Unfortunately he also can’t stop lying to make himself look good, and after one crazy scheme too many, it’s no surprise his brother’s patience is starting to wear a little thin.
A charismatic David Beatty does a great job of navigating Torsten’s highs and lows, in a world that tries its best but never quite gets to grips with what it’s like to be him. This world is represented by Piers Hunt, Molly Merwin and Lucinda Turner as his brother, sister-in-law and girlfriend, who clearly love him and want to help but have no idea how. The play aims to explore the impact of mental health issues not only on the individual but also on those closest to them, and is careful to make clear that Torsten’s family are suffering too. In fact, the only entirely unsympathetic character in the play is the mental health professional who aggressively questions Torsten about his problems, but offers no answers – unless you also count his unseen parents and other siblings, who we learn rejected him long ago for what they saw as his weakness.
It’s a shame that the play’s ending leaves a few too many unanswered questions – particularly surrounding the ever-present Nina, played by Minnie Murphy. It’s obvious from the start that there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye, but the (almost) complete lack of clues as to how or why she became Torsten’s confidant is a bit frustrating, and I found myself waiting for a revelation that never came.
Even so, the play’s message and intention come through loud and clear. It’s so important to keep talking about mental health, and Happy yet? plays its part by offering a very personal insight into one family’s struggle to find an answer to an unanswerable question. In particular, the play challenges the misconception that happiness is something which can be turned on or off at will, and encourages understanding instead of judgment. And if it feels a little unfinished, that’s okay – this is, after all, a conversation that’s far from over.
Happy Yet? is at the Courtyard Theatre until 28th October.