Absent at Shoreditch Town Hall

Constructed in the basements of Shoreditch Town Hall, Absent is an immersive theatre experience by dreamthinkspeak. More installation than performance; music, film and sets come together cleverly to create a disorienting labyrinth.

We spent our Wednesday night on a journey of exploration, through derelict corners and never ending, soulless modernist hotel rooms and into an opulent ballroom.

The story is based loosely on the life of the Duchess of Argyll, who was known firstly as a dazzling debutante, in the 1930s, and then as a sexually voracious socialite, renowned for her high-profile divorce in the 1960s. Her slide from grace was spectacular and in 1978, unable to keep her home, she moved into the Grosvenor House Hotel, where she lived until she was eventually evicted in 1990 for unpaid rent. We follow ghostly sightings of a Duchess-like figure around the hotel, seeing her as a young woman and as an older lady, falling from grace and disappearing from the hotel.

The other focus is on the new CEO of the hotel chain, who are modernising and commoditising the hotel in the present day, perhaps a comment on gentrification in London and particularly in Shoreditch where the show is based.

There’s a sense of intrigue and play, from the spy holes you initially look through into rooms, to climbing through wardrobes and mirror-image rooms.

Both storylines seem a bit lost in the experience.  We look for clues in the modern and derelict rooms but these don’t create a coherent sense of plot. It’s more a sense of her character and a sense of dislocation that you come away with.

The most impressive parts were the detailed miniature sets. The repetition of the same room at various different sizes create a pleasing disorientation. There’s also a sense of intrigue and play, from the spy holes you initially look through into rooms, to climbing through wardrobes and mirror-image rooms. A destroyed ballroom and a beautiful abandoned bedroom give a haunting ending to the experience. These once magnificent, opulent old rooms have fallen into disrepair and ruin, in stark contrast to the   repetition of utilitarian, sleek, modern box-rooms.

All in all a fascinating experience that could have been brilliant if they’d found a way to define the storyline more.

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