Review: Absent, Shoreditch Town Hall

The company dreamthinkspeak have never been afraid to take the unconventional approach. As the artistic director Tristan Sharps puts it, they have done “a lot of work in buildings that aren’t theatres”. Previous spectacles of theirs were staged in abandoned or semi-abandoned spaces including the hidden interiors of a disused department store, the labyrinthine back passsageways of a theatre and unseen spaces in the renowned buildings of Kings College and Somerset House.

Their most recent immersive experience Absent is highly imaginative and intricate in its execution. Taking over the basements of Shoreditch Town Hall and opening up areas that have never been revealed before, it strikingly reimagines the true story of the Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a central London hotel from the 1970s until the 80s, when she was finally evicted, having run out of friends and credit. It is a highly unusual story and well suited to being playfully experimented with.

Walking through a labyrinthine landscape, the further you enter into this installation, the more absurdist it becomes. Starting from the relative normalcy of a hotel room, you then proceed into other hotel rooms playing looped video, with miniature models of the very same room you are standing in. These miniature models play a major part in Absent, heightening the surreal atmosphere as you walk through. The use of the models, in combination with a strange soundscape that is slightly distorted and louder in some rooms than others, creates an eerie ambiance.

There is an increasingly stark contrast between the orderliness of the initial hotel rooms and dilapidated rooms you later come across that have fallen into complete disrepair, that are sparse and forbidding. This contrast between new and neglected highlights the changing fortunes of the Duchess of Argyll herself, from when she first arrived at the hotel as an optimistic 18 year-old to when she was finally turfed out many years later, disillusioned, friendless and in great debt. Yet, as for the Duchess herself, “you never meet her but are very aware of her through her absence”, as Tristan Sharps has said.

All in all, Absent’s soundscape and landscape come together very well, however the execution of the Duchess’ story could be more engaging. Perhaps a larger cast acting out scenes relating to her residence at the hotel would have brought her tale to life more. Nonetheless, dreamthinkspeak’s vision is very impressive and the immense installation painstakingly crafted.

Absent is playing Shoreditch Town Hall until 25 October. For more information and tickets, see the Shoreditch Town Hall website. Photo by dreamthinkspeak.