dreamthinkspeak: Absent


Features, Review, Theatre | by — September 15, 2015

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Shoreditch Town Hall
August 24th – October 25th, 2015

by Richard Hamer

Absent, the latest interactive theatre project from dreamthinkspeak, takes you on a dark journey through the basement of the recently refurbished Shoreditch Town Hall hotel. Far beneath the rejuvenation – perhaps gentrification – of the nearly 150 year old building, lie the crumbling ghosts of another time.

What little narrative there is goes like this: Margaret de Beaumont entered the old hotel in the 1950s. She was young and beautiful; the parties were wild, the men were numerous. But she chose to never leave, staying in the hotel with her rapidly fading memories, even as the parties ended, the debts piled up and the world left her behind.

You’re given little more than this. As a piece of theatre, it’s less concerned with telling a story than it is conveying a mood. Through the haunting music that drifts down every corridor, the carefully abandoned rooms, through the very bricks themselves, Absent expertly crafts a mood of fading regret, of bitter nostalgia.

As you walk the space, things becomes increasingly abstract. Margaret’s sense of her own rapidly shrinking world is represented by dozens of miniature hotel rooms, recreated in minute, incredible detail. Meanwhile her youth, childhood dreams infinite in size, watch from large, looping video screens. Absent can be a frequently surreal experience, utterly arresting in its recreation of the soul of a woman who never lived.

Taken on these terms, it is a triumph of atmosphere and staging. Yet it’s also disappointingly passive, and over all too quickly. With no real narrative through-line, the ending comes unexpectedly soon and with no real pay-off, no catharsis. There’s plenty to think about, but much of it is too vague to really articulate, and your memory of the event fades sooner than perhaps it should.

Much comparison has been made between Absent and Punchdrunk productions such as The Drowned Man. But these comparisons are not entirely valid: while both are often filled with actors and highly interactive, Absent feels more like a tour through a gallery, art with a capital ‘A’.

While imperfect, Absent is still a highly original, unusual production, deserving of your time. It will delight and unnerve you while you are there, even if – ultimately – you might walk away a little frustrated.

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