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Work / Art

Absence, loneliness and the western quest for happiness: the strange world of Vacuum

Some of the bravest, best creative projects are born of disillusion; with its precedents, with life, and with the boxes such endeavours are forced into. For Vacuum, a theatre company, its work is the fruit of frustration with a very British reliance on tradition. Dubbing itself as “making postmodern, post dramatic” work, the London-based company was founded in 2012, and sits nicely alongside the forward thinking shows that people in the capital go loopy over, like You Me Bum Bum Train, but with less explicit immersive properties.

“A lot of our work has come from frustrations with the theatre in that things like scene changes are awkward, or that audiences can lose concentration or get bored,” says Vacuum creative director Kit Redstone. “So in our shows we talk about those things and acknowledge them. The immersive element isn’t in the staging or the scenography: we want to wake you up and engage with you from the moment you enter the theatre.”

People struggle to pigeonhole Vacuum. Its new work Absence uses minimal set design, sees its three characters wearing black all-in-one morph suits and directly addressing the audience, yet there’s no improvisation. It’s a scripted narrative, but a very unusual one; and the characterisation is more akin to live art projects than standard theatrical conventions. “We weren’t live arty enough for live art festivals, but we were too avant garde for conventional theatres,” says Kit.

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Absence plays on the current western world fascination with “mindfulness” and living in the moment, using dialogue and references to pop culture, dancing, film and meditation. “We look at what it means to be present and absent – as performers, as audiences and in life. It’s a very western quest to try and find meaning in our lives and all that stuff,” says Kit. “People feel they should be happy, and they’re not. They might have money, a nice family, they’re safe and not living in war zone, but feel something’s lacking. I think a lot of people with way too much time on their hands look for some sort of medication, whatever that might be. I see that quest [for happiness] as valuable in places, but at times self indulgent.”

As with other Vacuum productions, loose themes that bring the piece together include gender, storytelling, dialogue conventions, isolation and loneliness. But at the heart of it all is the idea of audience, as we see the three strange characters interact with a “god-like voice” coming from the PA system. “It’s about theatre but it also of course relates to life, this journey of pushing to try and find out who we are and whether we exist,” says Kit.

“We find presence through being witnessed by each other, and in a theatrical sense, through the audience. By the end, the audience realises that they’ve been sitting around other people all along, but perhaps they’re not really aware of people around them.”

Absence is at Battersea Arts Centre from 21 – 24 October

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