Mental illness is often stigmatised and despite great progress in recent years this remains a largely unaddressed issue within our society. One in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, and yet, issues are poorly understood, often shrouded in shame and embarrassment, and, in true British fashion, brushed under the carpet. Mental illness needs to be talked about, and what better platform to do so than the Fringe?
A strong devotee of this movement is OpenMind Productions, whose Fringe debut, ‘Happy Yet?’ will grace the stage of Surgeon’s Hall this month. The play follows protagonist Torsten, as he deals with depression, mood swings, and the complexities that they bring from his attic apartment in Stockholm. The production company, made up of Edinburgh University students, aims to confront the stigma attached to mental health and to raise awareness of issues surrounding it. In this spirit, they hope the play will challenge misconceptions surrounding mental health and confront issues that are too often silenced, with the play’s proceeds being donated to Nightline.
‘Happy Yet?’ is based on an original script written by Edinburgh student Katie Berglof who was prompted to write the play in response to the loss of a close family member to depression ten years ago. Speaking to The Student, Katie explains, “I knew that I wanted to write about it. However, I didn’t know in what capacity to do so, because although time had passed there was little catharsis in my family surrounding the death.” Heavily influenced by the likes of Strindberg, Eugene O’ Neill and Tennessee Williams, Katie turned to playwriting as her medium of expression. “They inspired me to look to theatre as a means to heal”, she explains; “to turn our tragedy into something that is not only tangible, but also maybe funny.”
Indeed, ‘Happy Yet’ is a dark comedy, with the humour injected into the play integral to its central message. “By playing with the conventions of comedy and tragedy”, says Katie, “I hope to illuminate the gravity of mood swings. I have exaggerated the contrast between the light and dark days in Torsten’s life in order to illustrate the severity of his depression.” The comic element of their play also ties into the production company’s aim to confront mental health from an enlightened, modern perspective. Of course, mental illness can bring with it pain and suffering. However, it is also an unavoidable reality within the complexity of human nature that, like all aspects of ourselves, we must learn to laugh at, and often brings with it as much light as dark.
Nevertheless, there is a sensitivity surrounding mental health issues that may render its comic portrayal problematic. However, director Imogen Wyatt-Corner refutes this, arguing that while mental illness is considered at large as highly sensitive, “it shouldn’t be – it needs to be neutralised.” She highlights the dangers of discourses of sensitivity, which serve to worsen the stigmatisation of mental health. “A part of our aim is to counter stigmas against mental illness, and the ability to do that is born from being able to speak openly.” However, she does acknowledge the challenges involved in portraying mental illness onstage. “One way that this combatted”, she explains, “is through the emphasis on Torsten’s ‘normality’, his humility, his relationships with his family and friends. Torsten is not continuously, or even frequently, manic.
While there are certain things that trigger him and force him into his own mind for the most part the Torsten seen onstage is not drastically different from any other character. His mental illness is not necessarily a definitive characteristic. The man we see is different from the man that we hear about. The challenges that the audience encountered were mainly about considering Torsten’s character, and not making his mental instability his defining feature.” The play’s complex portrayal of Torsten’s character, of which his mental disorder is just one element, is integral to its challenging of mental health stigma.
People with mental health issues are all too often reduced to and defined by their mental illness. Katie hopes that the play will draw attention to the spectrum on which mental health issues reside. “We have to understand that every person is wired differently”, and “need to be able to talk about the mind without labels.”
With its energetic, talented team and innovative script, ‘Happy Yet?’ promises to be an excellent theatrical performance. However, most importantly, it will give voice to issues that have for too long been ignored and misunderstood, and prompt conversations that should have been had long ago.
‘Happy Yet’ can be seen at the Space @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53) from the 15th-27th August (excluding 21st).
Image courtesy of Olivia Moretti.