The moment you arrive at Shoreditch Town Hall, on Old Street, EC1, you are immediately drawn in to the Site Specific Promenade production that is Absent. I say this because neither my guest nor I could actually find the building’s entrance. This is because you are entering the purposefully created HOTEL, not Shoreditch Townhall as some of you may recognise. There are newly created signs welcoming Visitors in to the Shoreditch Town Hall Hotel, each guest is greeted by reception staff, checked in and told to wait in the café, we are offered a copy of today’s Evening Standard which happened to feature the Hotel and its infamous guest – we are also told we can wait in the lobby and study the new plans for the Hotel’s planned construction works to be completed summer 2016!
In fact, everything about the preparation of the Absent is perfect. The concept itself is 5* genius. Tristan Sharps has created and conceived a theatre piece that focuses on The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a central London Hotel for over a decade.
Like all site-specific theatre, the work that you experience must be defined in relation to its place and position. To move the work would be to destroy it and make it something else. In this sense the venue and the performance have to be interwoven and cannot be judged separately.
The piece is not any particular length of time, however, you are allocated a time slot to arrive and in small groups (my group was my friend and me) you are taken down a set of steps in to the Hotel and taken to a “typical budget room” by a hotel porter. Your experience of Absent begins as you arrive at the venue, you interact with the hotel staff and are treated to 5* customer service as you’d expect in the likes of premium boutique hotels in London. You are then left to experience the piece at your own leisure. They recommend that you allow around 30 minutes.
What then unravels in front of your eyes is up to you – you can watch a film, peek through spy holes, try every locked door, some will open others won’t. Your senses are treated to a game of perspective, just like Alice in her Wonderland, your environment shrinks in front of your eyes and you become too big to fit in to some spaces. Each room exposes a little more about the infamous hotel guest, we glimpse moments from her past, we see her party in all her glamour, we can luxuriate in her bed and spy on her revelry. As you muse around the building and work your way through a labyrinth of rooms including the basement your ears are treated to a haunting soundscape that to me sounded at times like the beating heart of the hotel. The deeper we go in to the hotel, the more we find that the magnetic and compelling heroine of the piece is a permanent fixture, part of her and her possessions built in to the framework.
Unfortunately I didn’t feel that the execution was as strong as the concept, and was at times completely bored and felt that I was wondering round a derelict building searching for a meaning that wasn’t there. My friend described the experience as receiving a beautifully gift wrapped present. A box you delicately open, toying and teasing each bow and ribbon, only to find that inside is nothing more than bubble wrap. The expectation of the piece is much better than the experience.
In reflection the experience (we took just over 45 minutes to go around the building) was definitely worthwhile as it has inspired much debate, however the experience at the time seemed to be somewhat lacking.
Review by Faye Stockley
A dreamthinkspeak production commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall, LIFT & LeftCoast
An intimate promenade installation created by Tristan Sharps for the basement spaces of Shoreditch Town Hall Supported by Arts Council England.
An intimate promenade installation inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a central London hotel in the 1970s. A young woman enters a hotel. She is magnetic and compelling, yet strangely detached, as if in a dream. She books for one night and remains for a lifetime; she’s happy and optimistic, yet unfathomably sad; she is wealthy and ostentatious, but bankrupt and survives on credit; she is beautiful, yet ugly; she has many lovers, but loves no one; she is 18 years old – or is she 80?
The Duchess of Argyll booked into a central London hotel in 1978 and was ejected several years later, having finally run out of friends and credit. In Absent, she is surreally re-imagined entering a hotel as an optimistic 18 year-old in the 1950’s and being evicted in the present day, into a modernised and radically changed world.
Margaret of Argyll, born Ethel Margaret Whigham was a well-known socialite, whose colourful public image made her a tabloid target in the middle of the last century. In 1978, her debts forced her to move from her house to a hotel suite. Shortly before her death, she found herself unable to pay the hotel bills, and her children placed her in a nursing home.
dreamthinkspeak’s director Tristan Sharps on ABSENT
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old St, EC1V 9LT
Box Office: 020 7968 6808
August 24 – October 25 2015
Monday to Thursday – 6pm-10pm
Friday – 6pm-11:30pm
Saturday – 12pm-11:30pm
Sunday – 12pm-10pm
Timed entry over 15 minute intervals from 6pm Mon – Fri and midday Sat – Sun. This is a promenade production and you will be on your feet throughout. You may go at your own pace. We recommend you spend a minimum of 30 minutes to experience the production, but you are free to spend as much time as you wish.
Thursday 3rd September 2015