An elevated heart rate, a minor headache and a distant feeling of dread. These probably aren’t new feelings, but Annie Baker’s latest play, Infinite Life, being performed at the National Theatre until January 13th, reminds us that our individual pains and anxieties are only natural responses to an inflamed and afflicted world.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
Set at a low-budget health retreat in northern California, Sofi (Christina Kirk), a 47 year-old “protein specialist” for a meal kit delivery company, has just arrived looking to complete a multi-day water fast. Like many of the other guests, she eats nothing over the seemingly infinite duration of her stay and drinks only water, hoping that a full body cleanse will treat the excruciating pain of her long-term bladder disorder.
The other guests at the retreat stay under similar pretences. Collectively suffering from every ‘itis’ under the buzzing California sun, Infinite Life ebbs and flows through the conversations between these women, which can sometimes be stilted, winding and hilarious. Yvette (Mia Katigbak) offends the other characters early on in the production by discussing her friend’s job as a porn narrator for the blind, which they all agree to listen to later in the afternoon; Nelson (Pete Simpson) – the only man at the retreat – shows Sofi pictures of his cancer-ridden colon interspersed with prized photographs of his daughter.
Baker brilliantly balances humour with pain and fear with intimacy, to create a picture of both a haven and a hazy bell jar for her starved characters, complete with mocking rose-pink walls and rather basic motel chaise-longues that only seem to add insult to injury. Eventually, in this small corner of society, similarities between ourselves and the characters begin to emerge. In particular, our own increasingly individualistic tendencies are investigated by Baker as wellness and health improvement is shown to be a solo journey at the retreat, only achieved by separating ourselves from our loved ones. At the same, Sofi and the other guests shuck responsibility for their wellness – despite their slowly weakening bodies – onto the neo-mystical answers provided by Erkin, the on-site but un-seen curator of each of the guests’ fast.
A play that is unafraid of silence, Baker draws us into the action of ‘Infinite Life’ by asking the audience to be refreshingly patient with the pacing of the action. Timelines expand and collapse in the play, and without an intermission, some audience members may find this frustrating and be tempted to glance at their phone. Occasional pings and phone calls off stage hint at distant violence (wildfires, school shootings) that penetrate the quietness of the set, allowing these fears to also penetrate the sanctuary of the theatre. Much like the frustrated, hungry characters sitting facing their audience, Infinite Life tells us that everyone could do with a break.
With standout performances by Christina Kirk and Marylouise Burk, Infinite Life is sure to leave audiences anxious about the state of the world we live in, and maybe their own ageing bodies. However, it also reminds us that asking friends or acquaintances for help (or getting that mole checked out) might make us feel a little better…
Paige Bruton is a London-based journalist and critic, originally from Bermuda. She holds a MSc from Columbia Journalism School, and she specialises in writing about the arts and culture. You can read her other work published in the essay collection, Exhumed: Experiments in Memory, and can find her through her twitter here.