Shoreditch Town Hall is an attractively imposing Victorian building in the course of being restored as a modestly priced hotel and experimental arts centre.
When you visit it to experience Absent, you are shown into the largely unrestored basement and pass through a series of rooms at your own pace. (You are recommended to spend at least thirty minutes passing through the various rooms, but you may stay as long as you like.)
Absent is in essence a reaction to the story of the Duchess of Argyll, a scandal-ridden lady who got through two husbands and countless lovers. In 1990, having been banished from the house by her second husband, she was evicted from the Grosvenor House Hotel, where she had lived for several months without paying the bills which were thrust under her door every week. She finished her days in a nursing home.
We begin our tour in a small, very neat hotel bedroom. Suddenly what has appeared to be a window has a woman behind it. She fixes us with her eyes. Her expressions and gestures tell us that she is very unhappy. She speaks occasionally, in a rather disconnected way. She seems to be ill in some way. It is difficult not to give way to a temptation to answer her and ask her questions.
Eventually she turns and walks away. It was at this point that I realised that my companion and I were not looking at a live actress but at a performance on screen. But what we are seeing is a woman whose life has somehow collapsed.
We don’t know why and are not told unless we happen to notice, late in our perambulation, an account, torn from the Evening Standard and stuck on the wall of a hotel kitchen, of the duchess’s eviction.
Interspersed with the woman’s slide downhill we see (we presume) the same person when she was a lonely only child, playing on a swing. No parents ever appear. The girl sings part of a song, getting stuck like a scratched gramophone record on the words “I’m waiting…’
We never learn what it was she was waiting for. Perhaps she did not know herself.
As we pass on through the basement of the old town hall the theme of the mighty fallen is intensified by the state of the rooms. Especially moving and symbolic of the woman’s story is a large bedroom, with wonderfully curtained windows and an imposing fireplace, which looks as if it has been shaken disastrously by vibrations set up by bombs falling close at hand.
I spent about 40 minutes going through these astonishing basement rooms. I feel as I write that the impact of those forty minutes will be with me for a very long time.