12 Last Songs, staged at Leeds Playhouse by Quarantine as part of the 2021 Transform Festival, is a durational piece. Quarantine describe it as a show about work. And that is true to an extent. More pressingly, it is a production about time. A 12 hour showcase of people from Leeds and the surrounding areas doing their jobs in the theatre space whilst answering questions, it manages to make time feel elastic and ethereal, sometimes passing unseen in the background, sometimes rushing at a pace.
The audience is periodically made aware of the time by Leentje Van Der Cruys and Ella Otomewo, the interviewers, who along with Michael Sherin and Lowri Evans, a digital artist who was out in the city of Leeds recording the world around her, are the only constants. Van Der Cruys and Otomewo asking audience members for the time at first seems like a small oversight on their part, timekeepers who have forgotten to wear a watch.
As the minutes pass by and the audience become attuned to the rhythms of the show, the question begins to take on a different quality. “Have you got the time?” becomes a philosophical question. Do we have time? Time to see the world around us? Time to acknowledge the people that we exist in community with? Or do we navigate our days with our heads in the clouds? It is revealing that one of the first people on stage is Jane, a decorator, who, throughout the day wallpapers a few different areas. One wall that she comes back to throughout the show has the images of clouds in the sky.
The sense that the show takes in an entire city-wide community is supported by putting accessibility is at the heart of this show. It has a pay what you can pricing model; there are two signers who are present throughout and the food that is prepared is almost entirely free from allergens. These small details make a big difference.
One of the goals of the performance is to ask 670 questions of 32 workers. About eight hours in Van Der Cruys panics – no, not panic, she is far too graceful and assured to panic. She expresses a mild disquiet that they have only asked half of the questions that have been projected onto the screen. This is another trick of time for she and Otomewo are skilled interviewers with the ability to use follow up questions to tease out thoughtful responses from the workers. They may not have asked the 670 projected questions but they asked a lot more than was shown and made their interviewees stop and consider.
In its gentle appeal to slow down, 12 Last Songs gives the audience an opportunity to consider beauty in places not normally associated with that word. Ashura is a hairdresser and spends a number of hours braiding a woman’s hair. At the other end of the performance space Mark and Jean take a great deal of care and time preparing coffee whilst their children play in a ball pool. What Ashura, Mark and Jean have in common is the dedication to their craft, a high level of skill and satisfaction at a job well done. There is beauty in work when you love what you do.
All of the workers demonstrate a love of their work, from the youth worker to the MP, the chef to the drone operator. This commonality is what ties the piece together, the very real sense that when we slow down and think of those around us, we are given a deeper understanding of community. It is worth slowing down. As Van Der Cruys and Otomewo intimate throughout, we do have the time.
12 Last Songs played at Leeds Playhouse on 23rd October as part of Transform Festival. More info here.