Absent, the latest site-specific offering from avant garde London theatre company dreamthinkspeak is not theatre at all. It is a sprawling art installation set in the depths of Shoreditch Town Hall, exploring space, nostalgia, the passage of time and the decay of beauty.
Those attending with the expectation of seeing a play complete with narrative and action will be disappointed, as there is none of that here. In fact, the absence of character and plot is palpable – hence the title of the show. The audience member is let into a boxy, modular, basic hotel room and from there must navigate the maze of memory to follow the thread of the life of the implied protagonist: Margaret de Beaumont.
This fictional debutante is inspired by the real life Duchess of Argyll, whose notorious long stay in the Grosvenor House Hotel and scandalous sex life, which included an infamous polaroid, was the source of much gossip in her day. In Absent, our socialite’s story is charted through fading newspaper cuttings which document the arrival of de Beaumont to the Town Hall Hotel as she turns 18, and her occupation of a series of rooms – from the first, grand suite to the last minimalist budget room.
We follow her life backwards, stumbling as we go across the remnants of time: an empty perfume bottle, a silver comb, a jewellery box. Intertwined with this is the use of miniatures and a disorienting rearrangement of each room, deconstructing space much like the memory is wont to do. Stand-out rooms include one with exposed brick and skeletal metal work, and an opulent ballroom in complete disarray. This is complemented poignantly by a soundscape by music producer Lapalux.
The results are wonderfully surreal. Continuously throughout I had the feeling I was in a lucid dream, and I delighted in exploring each nook and cranny, curious which doors would open, and which wouldn’t, peering through keyholes and touching the cold stone walls.
Still, this is not theatre. There is much excitement over immersive theatre at the moment and with good reason. However, there is also a rush to label things as immersive theatre which are not. Absent is certainly theatrical, but there can be no theatre without action. This is a piece of extraordinary immersive art.
The check-in procedure at the beginning of the experience is an excellent conceit increasingly being used by immersive devisers to make the audience actively ‘cross the threshold’ from reality into fiction while keeping the lines satisfyingly blurred. If you can spare a few minutes, be sure to read one of the articles in the Evening Standard in the bar. A lovely touch.
Absent runs until October 25. Buy tickets here.