Shoreditch Town Hall, London
Absent is a double-exploration: of a hotel under renovation, with fragmented, shabby, worn and broken rooms, and the life of an old Duchess, whose life seems similarly fragmented, shabby, worn and broken. A promenade installation, the tale of the Duchess is something of a trail of breadcrumbs: we keep encountering video footage, newspaper clippings, items from her life, rooms from her past, all of which act like pieces of a jigsaw gradually coming together.
The piece is richly atmospheric, and it is extremely enjoyable to explore. The image of the hotel room is pulled apart – quite literally at times – and we are constantly given different perspectives on the same few rooms. Each room seems to correspond to a part of the Duchess’ life, so as we are dissecting and examining these rooms in different ways, we are also seeing the Duchess, from childhood to old age. There are some wonderful moments, such as seeing a miniature of a ruined ballroom (accompanied, as ever, by referential footage of the Duchess’ relationship to it), only to open a pair of heavy doors to walk into the life-size room. It’s a great moment. Pieces of preparation and call-back pepper the piece in this way, and demonstrate an incredibly intricately thought-out space.
However, I can’t help feeling there isn’t quite enough. I was in an out within 25 minutes, and I certainly wasn’t rushing. I’m not sure what the company could have done to increase the experience – I’m not sure “the same, but more of it” would quite be the solution – but it did leave me feeling slightly deflated when I realised that was it. I wonder if there is room for a littlle more performative exploration: the first couple of sequences involve some clever trickery using video screens, two-way mirrors, and a live performer, and these had a slightly different quality to the rest of the piece. Admittedly they are something of a ‘rabbit hole’, in that they bring you into the world, but I wonder if the piece could have been book-ended with something similar (as opposed to the rather abrupt and somewhat un-subtle conclusion we are given). Certainly, given the plot that is in there, and how the final room – which I didn’t know was the final room until after I left – is presented, I suspect there’s space to create something that feels a bit more of a rounded conclusion.
Another slightly unexpected problem is the immersive touch of turning the Shoreditch Town Hall into the ‘Shoreditch Town Hall Hotel’. I’m familiar with the venue, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but my companion had never been there before and wasn’t aware that the experience was based in a fictional hotel. Consequently she nearly missed it as she arrived, thought she was in the wrong place, and went off in search of the venue. As we were leaving, we passed a similarly confused man at the reception desk. Now, I’m all for creating fully immersive worlds, including in foyers and entrance points, but this highlights an interesting issue I’d never considered in this kind of work: how can you retain the immersive story-world but still signal that, yes, this is the right venue? Something to think about there…
Overall, this is definitely worth catching if you’re able to get there easily enough: I wouldn’t recommend travelling too far for it though (certainly not all the way from Oxford).