mon 26/02/2024

Infinite Life, National Theatre review - beguiling new comedy about a world of pain | reviews, news & interviews

Infinite Life, National Theatre review - beguiling new comedy about a world of pain

Infinite Life, National Theatre review - beguiling new comedy about a world of pain

Annie Baker delivers a richly satisfying piece about hungry women

Fasting friends: Christina Kirk as Sofi and Marylouise Burke as EileenImages - Marc Brenner

A sun deck with seven pale-green padded loungers is the latest setting for the latest National Theatre premiere from American playwright Annie Baker to people in her inimitable way. In her hands this banal space is as dramatically charged as any windowless Beckett cell. 

The set is lit to depict different stages of the day, from bright golden sunlight to crepuscular gloom. Time elapsing is announced by one of the characters: “22 minutes”, “25 hours”, and so on. Over five days, the chairs will be occupied by groupings of five women and a solitary man, the women in an assortment of leisurewear who are seen clutching books, green drinks and refillable water bottles, the man bare-chested with just a vape and a phone.

We are at a fasting clinic in northern California run by an invisible doctor noted for his miracle cures. Immediately, the play’s title, Infinite Life, is alive with meaning and our metaphor detectors start buzzing: is this little world going to stand in for the wider world and the frailty of the human condition, or is it a comic slice-of-life about kooky Americans obsessed with health? It’s sort of both, never belabouring its potential for the metaphorical, yet rising far beyond its sitcom-ish set-up. Baker even cheekily has the male patient, a smug fintech exec called Nelson (Pete Simpson, pictured below left), actually suggest his impacted colon, which once made him vomit the contents of his intestines, has a deeper meaning: “You can’t tell me this isn’t a metaphor… that shit was coming out of my mouth.”

As with all Baker’s writing, the characters are immediately engaging, especially played by actors as good as these, all from the original Off Broadway cast. Somehow each straddles the line between representing a type and being a wholly individuated, realistic person. Kristine Nielsen and Mia Katigbak in Infinite LifeFirst to appear is Sofi (Christina Kirk) from LA, with George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda for company. She’s the youngest on view, at 47, but arguably the most in pain, physically and emotionally. Her husband, from whom she is newly separated, isn’t returning her texts, reducing her to tears and masturbation; he left when he discovered that, unable to orgasm without painful consequences, she had embarked on a sexting relationship with a colleague. She leaves small-hours phone messages for them both, in different voices. Immensely troubled, she is also pleasantly sharp and candid.

Like most of the women, Sofi refers to her problem oddly casually as “a chronic pain thing”; others talk about “bladder stuff”. But these are practised patients who know the exact clinical terms for their ailments. The most proficient at health-speak is Asian-American Yvette (Mia Katigbak, pictured above, right, with Kristine Nielsen), whose catalogue of her ailments and the drugs prescribed for them runs to several pages – and that’s just the list we see her deliver: a human time-check tells us this litany began 18 minutes earlier. Elaine (Brenda Pressley), a no-nonsense Black woman with Lyme disease, has settled in for the duration with a colouring book.

Joining them onstage – very slowly – is the eldest, Eileen, played by the wonderful Marylouise Burke, the guest-house owner in John, a previous Baker play at the National. Eileen is an impish, stick-thin little woman who radiates an eccentric intelligence. She has booked in for the longest stint, three weeks, though we don’t find out what she is hoping to cure until the last moments of the play. The others are solicitous to her though note that she is “religious” and unhappy around swearing.

Of that there is a fair amount, as well as sexual explicitness and unfiltered descriptions of disease. But this is not in any way a lugubrious play, or a grotesque one. It's partly about the woes of women's bodies, but also about their talent for civility and community. They clearly irritate each other at times, but keep things light and matter of fact, even as they grow nauseous from hunger. They bandy wild ideas – Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), a slightly domineering, soon-to-be-retired flight attendant, believes the hum on Channel 13 is the energy left behind by the Big Bang, while Elaine thinks everybody gets ill now because they don’t wash the hormones off their fruit properly. Yvette tells the others about her friend who narrates porn films for the blind; Sofi ponders why the men in porn films all look like “big idiot rapists”. 

Pete Simpson in Infinite LifeOne particular exchange between Ginnie and Yvette is more than a comic showstopper. Ginnie is trying to interest Yvette in a discussion about an Asian pirate who raped a 14-year-old girl: would Yvette, who shares a culture, diet, life experiences and so on with the pirate, opt for raping a 14-year-old in his shoes, she asks? Yvette points out that logically she wouldn’t be herself if she was the pirate, so she would rape the 14-year-old, because the pirate would.

Baker is up to her usual trick here of couching big issues in small moments. Yvette’s response underscores the unique difficulties of the world of pain, and of the world full stop. Can we ever step into other’s shoes and feel what they feel? Can we ever truly empathise with others, love them, even? Are we just a mass of painful symptoms with fancy names, or something more?

Eileen and Sofi’s poignant final scene together illustrates the possibility for fellow feeling. Sofi and Nelson are clearly in lust with each other, but he, a man in an open marriage, can offer nothing more than sex. Sofi unexpectedly believes that may cure her pain.

Eileen advocates a different way, based on her Christian Scientist background. It’s one she can’t swear she totally believes in but also can’t swear she doesn’t, which is to resist pain as a property of the physical world, not the spiritual one, and therefore an error. It’s from St Paul’s concept of the Infinite Idea, echoing the play’s title. But nothing is remotely dogmatic about these remarks, and Eileen’s wry last line, describing how happy she was during her sex-crazed menopause, is, "Though I’m not sure I can tell you why.” Even the oldest and wisest of the women has no certainties, but she at least has learnt to live with that.

James Macdonald directs this spare but richly satisfying text with a firm grasp on all its beguiling subtleties and opportunities for dry humour. And the American cast rise to it with supreme intelligence. 

The characters are immediately engaging, especially played by actors as good as these

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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