'Absent' review or 'Can you see your own reflection?'

Absent, Tristan Sharps and dreamthinkspeak
Shoreditch Town Hall, 2nd September 2015

I spent a lot of ‘Absent’ looking anxiously behind me but also keenly forging ahead, excited and anxious about the shocks and hazy fantasies that might lie around the corner. The show is subtle and beautifully textured but the story behind dreamthinkspeak’s latest promenade experience is actually quite simple: Shoreditch hotel is being renovated and its longest serving resident – a glamorous woman based on the real-life Duchess of Argyll – is being asked to move on. We follow this reluctant evictee through the crumbling half-hotel and the story of her life floods in. It’s like watching someone else’s life flash before your eyes, only you’re in a hall of mirrors, tripping hard, obsessed with death and trapped in a moody twilight world that will not let you go.

Tristan Sharps’ productions always veer between art installation and theatre and sometimes the balance doesn’t quite fall into place. I left ‘The Rest is Silence’ grasping for Shakespeare and I left ‘In the Beginning was the End’ totally anchorless; confused, exhilarated, frustrated. But ‘Absent’ achieves a rather beautiful balance between installation and active theatrical experience; the show guides us when necessary but also lets us make choices and roam, explore and wonder at will.

The opening stages, as the audience is led inside the hotel in small groups, feel awkward. It takes a while for the audience to loosen up, fan out and navigate the show alone. As we traipse through the early rooms – and are shown projections of this once-glamorous lady’s life – everything feels a tad stilted and self-conscious. People natter nervously, tentatively looking for answers, rules and guidance. I clench my teeth and secretly long for everyone else to disappear.

But as the show opens out, and the number of entrances and exits gradually multiply, the crowd begins to disperse. The questions die out, the imploring looks disappear and everyone begins to follow his or her own tentative line through the show. Screens feature heavily in this production – always filled with memories of this faded lady’s life – but they appear in all sorts of shapes, sizes and disguises. Sometimes the screens are huge and filled with thick and flickering life we want to reach out and touch. Sometimes the screens are tiny, distant and endlessly multiplying. Often they are trapped inside a tiny set that replicates a life-size room we have just walked through. The screens begin to take on a beautifully abstract quality; they haunt, tease and tickle us and get us thinking about how transient – but also how strangely immoveable and permanent – the past and memory is.

‘Absent’ creeps and crawls around the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall and gradually all sense of direction and purpose melts away. Backwards is forwards and forwards is backwards. Every time you think you might be progressing, your world is shattered or your ideas turned on their head. The infrastructure of the space merges beautifully with the show, refusing to allow any certainty or order to set in. The random nature of memory – those throw away moments that might end up defining you forever –  is built into the very walls and fabric of this show.

Alongside the multiplying, shrinking and expanding video memories is a trickling sound track and overarching design that pulls you in and out of ‘reality’. Sometimes the rooms take us inside those projected worlds and, at other times, they tear the illusion apart. In one alleyway, a little vignette of a vase and a painting, which hangs on a wall, wall multiplies on and on and on; it looks like a mirrored reflection but is in fact a series of concrete installations. The real is rendered surreal and the fantastical is given texture, depth and permanence; ghosts become solid and the present is engulfed by the past. Which of those worlds and visions and characters is really ‘real’ – or is it merely what feels most real to us that matters in the end?