Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Photograph: Jim Stephenson
Evocative corridors… Absent at Shoreditch Town Hall. Photograph: Jim Stephenson

To call dreamthinkspeak’s Absent ‘theatre’ may be something of a misnomer. Sure, there are actors – namely, the well-drilled hotel staff who greet you at the entrance and guide you to the performance space, somewhat sinisterly controlling its edges with their ever-present surveillance. We also have the cadaverous and fleeting presence of our ‘protagonist’ (based, we are told, on the fascinating Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll), of whom one catches a surreptitious glimpse through a ‘mirror’ in the first room one comes to.

But beyond that, it perhaps would be more fitting to label it an installation (the vaguest of generic categorisations feels fitting), comprising of film, models, sound and space. In essence it might rather be best described, at the risk of sounding pompous, as a series of questions which themselves are never made explicit, let alone answered.

One is left to wander the wonderfully evocative corridors of Shoreditch Town Hall, which play the part of the hotel – arguably the lead – currently in the midst of redevelopment by a sinister conglomerate, which we discover through scraps of newspaper left here and there. But is the transition from an age of glamour, albeit an extremely privileged one, to an age of faceless and tawdry profit mongering, a commentary on the Shoreditch just outside the hotel walls? And what are we to make of the juxtaposition of a Manet and pots of Dulux in a utility room?

The real life Duchess of Argyll was a socialite whose private life caused a sensation of Profumo-like proportions, when in 1963 photographs emerged of her naked, save a string of pearls, fellating a ‘headless’ man (rumoured to be Winston Churchill’s son-in-law). In 1978, the then debt-riddled Duchess moved into the Grosvenor House hotel, where she resided for more than ten years. But in the world of the play, this hotel is where she resides now and is even to reside in the future.

Time is one of the many of ambiguities in Absent – ambiguities which point to a tension between how essential yet unreliable the memory can be, and the ephemerality of life in which one can never quite grasp the substance. The effect, complemented wonderfully by the soundscapes (by Lapalux) is consistently discomfiting, but at the same time affecting. The final two rooms (one progresses in a linear way through the rooms of the production) are incredibly moving, and give a real aptness to the production’s title.

On that note, however, if forced to level a criticism, one might argue there is too much space, or rather too much absence. How much of Absent’s value be ascribed to the actual production itself, rather than the audience member’s own imagination? But, then, maybe that’s the point.

Absent is at Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, EC1V 9LT until 25 October.

shoreditchtownhall.com

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