Explore the dark secrets of an Old World hotel in Absent at Shoreditch Town Hall

Theatre company dreamthinkspeak’s latest project is a ‘promenade installation’inspired by the life of a mysterious Duchess, finds Anna Behrmann.

An invitation to an immersive theatre production – or a “promenade installation”, as theatre maker Tristan Sharps would prefer it to be called – is always mysterious.

This invitation is perhaps even more curious than most; Absent, which will take place at Shoreditch Town Hall, is in part defined by the absence of its central character.

Inspired by the Duchess of Argyll, who booked into a London hotel in 1978 and was finally forced out several years later, having run out of money, the young woman in Absent books into her hotel and lives there on credit for a lifetime.

“You never really meet her; you’re aware of her through her absence,” Sharps, from dreamthinkspeak, explains. “It’s a journey through the space; it’s like a viewing of a hotel which is currently in renovation, so you have to be a little bit careful.

“You are aware of a residue of a person who has lived in these corridors and rooms and whose life has been played out – you’re given fleeting glimpses of that.”

With his Brighton-based company, dreamthinkspeak, Sharps has previously created Orpheus in a Moscow paper factory and a Leonardo Da Vinci-inspired show taking part in the passageways beneath King’s College and Somerset House.

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Originally an actor and having trained at Jacques Lecoq school in Paris, the theatre maker is now concerned with challenging people’s perceptions of spaces and with “writing in visual images.” Much of Absent will take place in the basements of Shoreditch Town Hall, which Sharps defines as “dilapidated and beautiful.”

In Sharps’ re-imagining of the Duchess’ story, she enters the hotel as a young woman in the hotel’s grand Old World heyday, and gets evicted in the present day. The new owners are the fictional Shoreditch Group, who decide to rebuild the interior of the hotel and put in many more rooms that all look the same, in order to make more profit.

“The world around us is becoming more homogenised,” Sharps says. “The big brands buy up the small brands; all the coffee shops look the same with slightly different coloured branding. It’s a world that delivers things on a mass scale that we need to consume and it creates jobs. Globalisation is the new philosophy. You could argue that that’s out of necessity, or that we just haven’t created anything better.”

Sharps mentions the controversial redevelopment of Bishopsgate, and the skyscraper office space, homes and shopping centres that are currently being planned around the Square Mile and at the Goods Yard in Shoreditch.

If this sounds political, Sharps insists that it is not. “My work is about feeling and emotion; about somehow creating a world which you can feel, and a space that will allow you to think for yourself,” he says.

“It’s about trying to find the right way of asking, rather than answering questions.”

Until October 25. Visit shoreditchtownhall.com/theatre-performance/whats-on/event/absent