Stuart King

Review: INFINITE LIFE at National Theatre, Dorfman

When your body begins to fail you and grinding pain is your constant companion, what solace is there in thinking and sharing? Annie Baker’s sedate fly-on-the-wall contemplation set at a Northern California medical retreat, offers audiences a chance to wistfully meditate on the bizarrely engaging experiences of those suffering medical afflictions at a treatment centre.

Christina Kirk (Sofi), Kristine Neilsen (Ginnie), Brenda Pressley (Elaine), and Mia Katigbak (Yvette), in Infinite Life at the National Theatre. Photo credit Marc BrennerChristina Kirk (Sofi), Kristine Neilsen (Ginnie), Brenda Pressley (Elaine), and Mia Katigbak (Yvette), in Infinite Life at the National Theatre. Photo credit Marc Brenner

Five women slowly shuffle out into the midday sun to relax on the clinic’s sun loungers. As a result of multitudinous ailments and conditions (which cause varying degrees of pain and frustration), each is fasting in a bid to detoxify. Mundanities are coyly revealed and discussed, lists of diseases and their possible causes and treatments are considered, and all at a gentle and measured pace which reflects the calm environment chosen by those coming to terms with their challenges.

As Sofi, Christina Kirk gets the meatiest moments to muse on her marriage and maladies, and when Nelson (Pete Simpson) appears after a couple of days, causing a rush of hormonal responses, he adds a groaning urgency to her situation. Her night-time visits to the loungers where she pours out frustrations and anxieties via phone messages to the husband from whom she is separated, suddenly take-on a frisson of jeopardy as she imagines and tries to instigate, sexual relief with the handsome stranger. Amusingly, Baker’s louche FinTech lothario is unable to resist comparing his colon pain to childbirth, eliciting a knowing murmur from female audience members. In fact, for much of the play, the subtle observations and considerations raised during the women’s discourse, are funny because of the entirely matter-of-fact and real-time pace of each episode — which is no mean feat, given some of their predicaments and the requirement for Pinter-esque pauses.

Pre-empted with a spoken “8 minutes later”, “16 hours later”, “next day”, (and other variations) the scenes are punctuated and grow out of each other as lighting states change rapidly and the characters depart and reappear to initiate the next scene. The play’s title is derived from a line where Eileen (Marylouise Burke) declaims her pain, stating “A minute of this, is an infinity”. Director James Macdonald’s remaining cast members (Mia Katigbak as Yvette, Kristine Nielsen as Ginnie and Brenda Pressley as Elaine) demonstrate the kind of resolute fortitude which a generation of long-suffering women will have had to deploy in dealing with life’s demands, the ravages of time, stupidity of their menfolk and a world which no longer sees them. This play bears a sedate but insightful and intriguingly original written format, which mesmerises without ever resorting to flashy or melodramatic moments.