Infinite Life

The human brain doesn’t allow us to remember pain. At least, not how pain feels. Instead, it recalls our corresponding emotional state, and the impact it had on our lives. This is why runners will happily take part in another marathon, but patients will be anxious about another hospital visit.

Has much to offer as a gentle portrayal of the everyday

It’s also why every pain we experience feels like the worst. And why we can’t imagine anyone suffering anything as bad. Comparison and empathy are impossible because we have no remembered benchmark.

A retreat for chronic pain sufferers may therefore seem an odd setting for a play. But that’s what we have in Annie Baker’s Infinite Life, now at the National Theatre’s Dorfman. Don’t be taken in by first appearances. As we have seen with Baker’s previous plays, setting takes a secondary role. As does plot.

In Infinite Life, pain is just a portal through which we see people.

Disparate characters

We follow 47-year-old Sofi (Christina Kirk) during her stay at the retreat, somewhere in the sweltering heat of the North California desert. Time passes as she lies out on the sun yard, taking her place on a chaise longue with the other patients. They are all at different stages of a treatment that seems questionable, involving little more than enforced fasting over a period dictated by an unseen doctor.

Other than Sofi, the current patients are either side of pensionable age. It is a disparate group of characters. Each is suffering a pain more extreme than any other, though they comfort rather than compete.

Eileen (Marylouise Burke, wonderfully strong in her fragility) suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a non-life-threatening condition that makes everyday movement difficult but that could just one day disappear. Yvette (Mia Katigbak), steadfastly accepts her lot that has seen her blighted by every illness possible, leading to bladder removal. Elaine (Brenda Pressley) and Ginnie (Kristine Nielson) have returning cancer. Sofi’s pain is also bladder-related, specifically in her vagina.

We don’t discover much about their pain. But we sense that without pain in their lives, these women’s paths would never have crossed. And so, they do as we humans are wont to. They converse, pass comment, make idle chit-chat.

We watch as they simply share the time life has given them with the people they have met along the way.

Prejudiced perceptions

Baker reveals little about the characters’ lives outside of the clinic either. Small details pop out in conversation but aren’t examined or followed up. We are used to hearing people probe for personal information in the construct of plays and films, and hearing others overshare in response. Such directness rarely happens in real life.

We paint pictures and draw our own conclusions from passing comment. Ginnie is a retired air hostess and stepmother to her female partner’s daughter. Eileen is a Christian Scientist, possibly experiencing a crisis of faith. Sofi is Head of Protein for a ready meal company and is having a sexual affair that doesn’t involve sex. They are later joined by a male patient, Nelson (Pete Simpson, a sort of Dick van Dyke / David Hasselhoff hybrid), who is happier to discuss his open marriage than his profession.

Other playwrights slowly build character exposition. They reveal clues as the plot develops, becoming signposts that create dramatic tension. Baker just lets them sit. And then they quietly drift away.

It forces us to fill in the gaps. We take these nuggets of information and paint prejudiced perceptions that come from our own beliefs. Much in the way we subconsciously ascribe personality traits to people we have just met based on their answer to the question “What do you do for a living?” As such, no two audience members are likely to feel the same about any character.

Without structure

Nor do we discover what led them to seek out this clinic whose practises are surely questionable, and whose costs we are predisposed to assume are exclusionary. Everything takes place within the here and now of the sun yard. A snapshot that only exists in and of itself.

This is what Baker is known for. Plots don’t develop. Settings play second fiddle. She draws people and shows us how they speak with each other.

Her 2016 play, The Flick, was set in an old cinema but had little to do with cinematography. 2018’s John took place in a spooky guesthouse but wasn’t about holidays and the expected spookiness never unravelled the teased twists and turns. Baker’s plays have no typical beginning, middle and end. They are without structure. They just happen.

Comparably sprightly

Baker also likes to take her time. Seeing one of her plays requires a level of patience that some will feel is not rewarded. The Flick ran at 3¾ hours, John was 3 hours. It is not uncommon to see an audience for either reduce in size post-interval.

Much of the time is filled with silence. Huge swathes of nothingness take place, with no movement, no facial expression to take our attention. Again, much as happens in everyday life.

Infinite Life further highlights life’s slow passage, using Sofi to signpost scenes with “18 minutes…” or “8 hours…” or “24 hours… later.” Towards the end of Sofi’s stay, the accuracy of the time falters. It’s like we may be reading her diary, its reliability lessening as the treatment impacts her cognitive ability. By the final scene, she questions whether this was Day 8 or 9 or 10 of her stay.

Infinite Life is a comparably sprightly 105 minutes. Though that is without interval. It is not a play to see if you are feeling listless. The pace, tone, and nothing-much-happens plot have a soporific effect and the seats in the Dorfman are not built to be slept in.

Nourish your mind

Infinite Life is poignant and thoughtful. It has much to offer as a gentle portrayal of the everyday. This cast – all of whom have transferred with the play directly from its New York premiere in September – are an exceptional ensemble. It’s difficult to imagine the stillness of the play being able to captivate if any of these links were just a fraction out of place.

But it is a particular type of theatre. If you have the energy and the right expectations, it provides much to contemplate. It can nourish your mind.

If you are looking for typical West End theatre that will excite with dramatic surprises, this may not fit the bill so much. In fact, if you prefer your plays to have a story to them, you may be disappointed too.

The Dorfman has become the London home to Baker’s work, and I can’t think of anywhere it would sit better. Baker may be the Pinter of our generation, with exquisite writing displaying true human insight. She may never be mainstream, but she remains a genius whose work is always enlightening.

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The Blurb

Five women in Northern California lie outside on chaise longues and philosophise. Annie Baker’s (The Flick, The Antipodes) new play is a surprisingly funny inquiry into the complexity of suffering, and what it means to desire in a body that’s failing you. James Macdonald (The Welkin, John) directs this bold, dreamlike story, direct from a run at the Tony Award®-winning Atlantic Theater Company in New York.

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