Shoreditch Town Hall, London


© Jim Stephenson

© Jim Stephenson

Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.

`Immersive’ theatre is all the rage these days, a hold-all term that can cover a gamut of situations. At one time, it was even known as `promenade’. In dreamthinkspeak’s Absent, just about all are employed at one time or another. Promenade, installation, film, `Live Art’, and `plastic art’ all are on show in this fabulous recreation, set within the transformed Shoreditch Town Hall.

How these old Victorian civic piles have lent themselves in recent years to becoming centres of new artistic life. Shoreditch is new to me but clearly carving out a totally new story for itself.

Dreamthinkspeak’s Absent sits beguilingly within this new framework – a haunting journey into the past and devastating comment on the future. Transformed into the smartest of hotels, every concierge smilingly efficient, no detail has been overlooked. We are beckoned and walk along its corridors where we catch glimpses of an elderly woman, later of her younger self as a celebrated 1950s socialite, and then younger as a child on a swing.

In between, we enter rooms sometimes elegantly vintage, at others ultra modern, and some derelict, smelly and ruined. Finally, the piece de resistance, a ballroom – mangled, destroyed – a place we’ve just witnessed on film of the woman’s earlier social triumph.

Absent is loosely based on the story of the Duchess of Argyll’s residence in – and eviction from – a London hotel in the 1970s. As such, it recreates her as the fictional Margaret de Beaumont and does so by following a similar theatrical conceit used some years ago in LIFT (a co-commissioner here of Absent) when Deborah Warner re-imagined the St Pancras Hotel in its glory days: you make your own journey. Full of atmospheres, dreamthinkspeak also add, brilliantly, a dizzying range of perspectives – visual, emotional, metaphysical.

© Jim Stephenson

© Jim Stephenson

For the other part of the conceit is that this hotel is also in the midst of being `developed’ by a thrusting CEO (seen on video screen and even the subject of an article, along with one on Margaret de Beaumont in the London Evening Standard), its ultra-modern hermetic, cramped cell-like rooms are also, Absent seems to be saying the awful accommodation style of the future.

Wonderfully crafted down to the last minute detail, fastidiously rendered with Alice in Wonderland and Narnia cunningly created other worlds, this is an exquisite, clever, probing exploration of the past and future, reality and fantasy.


Absent runs at the Shoreditch Town Hall to Oct 25, 2015

A dreamthinkspeak production Commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall, LIFT and LeftCoast

First published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015