One of the jobs of the Arts is to create space to explore the human experience, both the everyday and the unimaginable. That, and to entertain.
In Caspar Vandeputte’s award-winning play Sweet Sixteen, Orange Theatre Company has found something that does both. The humour and fun in this production illuminate the serious subject matter with care and compassion.
It’s a story of two sisters, Dunya and Dido. Dunya, about to turn 16, is preparing a talk for her class about suicide. It’s something she knows about: Her sister Dido never made it past fifteen, she committed suicide the day before her 16th birthday. As Dunya rehearses her talk in an imaginary classroom, Dido suddenly appears, allowing the former to confront the deep sadness, but also the resentment and loneliness, she feels as ‘the one left behind’.
Conversations around death are not easy, and they take on a different form when somebody has died by suicide. What do you say? How do you find the words? Caspar Vandeputte’s authentic and personal play confronts our awkwardness with grace and humour. It feels like a step towards normalising the conversation around mental health, which is often stigmatised and misunderstood.
Originally staged in Dutch by De Toneelmakerij, it played in high schools across the Netherlands and was written to address, and talk about, teen suicide.
Last night was the English language premiere, which saw the classroom setting brought to the theatre. The audience, some of whom sit at desks in the classroom onstage, is positioned as the outsider, we are the classmates who don’t know what to say, the friends who can’t look Dunya in the eye, let alone offer her the fellowship and connection she desperately craves after the death of her sister.
Director Belle Van Heerikhuizen and her two actors, Hanna van Vliet and Sigrid ten Napel, create Dunya’s inner landscape with consummate skill. The bright fluorescent lighting (designed by Rob Goudsmit) evokes a school setting but also transports us to the ‘between’ world of Dunya’s imagination, where important questions can be asked, if not answered. Like so many survivors, Dunya wants to know why. Could she have done anything to help?
The dynamic between the two performers is intriguing.There’s a truthfulness to the onstage sibling relationship that is very relatable, and the two actors bounce off each other with a deftness and confidence that is a joy to watch. It was interesting to me that Hannna van Vliet as Dunya (who also created the role in Dutch) gives us a very grounded and touching performance, whilst Sigrid ten Napel as Dido, is delightfully quirky, inhabiting a heightened reality that feels entirely at one with her status as a ghost, or a figment of Dunya’s imagination. There’s a lack of contrition from Dido that triggers Dunya. She wants Dido to accept responsibility for the pain she has caused. But the flip side of that gives us an insight into Dunya’s feelings of guilt early on as Dido asks: “Did you ever ask me how I was doing?”.
Sweet Sixteen is funny, relevant and thought-provoking. Hats off to Orange Theatre for continuing to stage work that both showcases new writing, and addresses complex themes. It is a play to be enjoyed, but more importantly, it is a play to be talked about. Velima Dhosty 17th June 2023