Infinite Life Review – National Theatre, London

Christina Kirk (Sofi). Photo: Marc Brenner

A new Annie Baker play at the National Theatre feels like event theatre, even if Infinite Life is something of a slow-burner. First seen at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York earlier this year, this co-production between the company and the National Theatre is billed as ‘examining the complexity of suffering’ but it feels equally to be a satire of the cult of wellness. It isn’t until the late throws of play that Baker finally gets under the skin of what it means to suffer, though it is an enjoyable time getting there; the play is stuffed full of dry, laugh-out-loud humour that is expertly delivered by the ensemble cast.

Directed by James Macdonald, Baker’s play is set in a mysterious and mostly female-attended health retreat run by an unseen (to us) guru-style doctor, who is spoken about in hushed tones. Sofi (Christina Kirk) has just arrived and is trying to get through Daniel Deronda but is side-tracked by her fellow retreat members, as well as fasting-induced nausea.

This place where ‘healing journeys’ take place has all the hallmarks of a cult, including a leader who offers, if not quite infinite, the promise of an extended life that comes free of pain, disease or discomfort – provided you drink only the water or green juice (no Kool-Aid here) he prescribes. The catch is you have to pay for it – and it’s fifty dollars extra per night if you don’t want to share your room – and it involves fasting for a period of time that could extend anywhere from a weekend up to the rumoured thirty-six days someone says their friend did. Is it a wellness spa or a competition?

Kristine Nielsen (Ginnie), Brenda Pressley (Elaine), Marylouise Burke (Eileen) and Mia Katigbak (Yvette). Photo: Marc Brenner

There are hints, of course, that not all is what it seems. The lounge chairs the women sit on for hours at a time face onto a bakery parking lot – not exactly what you image for a health retreat – and our fasters can smell the waft of baking bread around 5 am as the bakers set to work – an impediment to fasting, you would imagine. Eileen (Marylouise Burke) wonders and worries about the doctor’s favouritism; why did he only spend fifteen minutes talking with her but a full hour with Yvette (Mia Katigbak)?

But even if it’s not exactly paradise, Yvette and Nelson (Pete Simpson) say the retreat worked for them. Having refused standard medical treatment and instead opted for the doctor’s unique methods previously, they came back with a clean bill of health and have only relapsed years later. Even more, they have the photos to prove it; which is possibly where Baker’s narrative gets a little muddled. If this is satirising or attempting to skewer the cult of wellness, why has this strange doctor’s miracle cure worked? Baker gives no hint of, nor does she provide any of the other characters the opportunity to unpick, whether Yvette and Nelson are being completely honest.

The transition of time at the retreat is marked by Sofi who notes its passing audibly, remarking ‘twelve hours later’ and ‘twenty-two hours later’ as scenes change – but as she progresses with her fast and her sense of time blurs, so too do these time stamps. They slip from specific into generics (‘the next day’) disappearing entirely towards the end, before being briefly reprised with even less assurance on their accuracy with a suggestion that either two or three days had passed. As she departs, Sofi remarks that she doesn’t know if she was in the centre for nine days or ten. It’s a clever technique from Baker – we feel equally cast adrift in the timing of the play’s action.

Marylouise Burke (Eileen). Photo: Marc Brenner

Baker also shifts the tone with sharp diversions from comedy, throwing us from deadpan humour into deeply unsettling moments, marrying two moments of torment that show the parallels between Eileen and Sofi. Sofi’s challenges show how pleasure and pain can combine in ways that cannot be fixed with a detox. Eileen perfectly captures that complex contradiction when describing a time in her life that she did not enjoy but was glad had happened in a speech that is touchingly delivered by Burke.

It feels important to note Isabella Byrd’s lighting design which is simple yet incredibly impactful. We join Sofi in the darkness of the night, her face lit only by her phone screen as she wallows in the emotional pain that comes on the heels of her physical pain. When the morning is ushered in it is as blinding to us as it is to the five women who are ultra-sensitive to the light in their fasting state. It makes it all real.

The production’s best moments play out as the sun is setting on the five women in their loungers as they begin to open up to each other on their varied lives and their varied pains, or when they are alone in the dark of night. These are women of various ages, races, backgrounds and experiences sharing their female experience; in those moments Baker strikes gold. The introduction of Nelson interrupts both the women and the play’s flow – an unwelcome visitor on both counts.

This is a slippy play; full of deadpan humour, dryly delivered with philosophical ideas that bubble under the surface of a play that doesn’t quite go deep enough but is well worth sticking with all the same.

Infinite Life plays in the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until 13 January 2024.

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