Simon Jenner on the South Bank
2 December 2023
“It’s very weird and great.” A woman is trying to read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda but has to explain it to someone else. It could explain Annie Baker too: great certainly, though weird as an adjective has faded as we have got used to her writing. Infinite Life, set in a pain management clinic, is her fourth play to be staged at the National Theatre’s Dorfman in seven years – this time in a co-production with Atlantic Theater Company, who premiered the work in New York in August. With James Macdonald directing his third Baker show, it’s also a full return to form after the slightly uneven The Antipodes seen here in 2019.
Christina Kirk as Sofi. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Taking initial bearings from Chekhov, Baker’s dialogue is full of indirection and notebook-observed lacunae. Even in American naturalism from Richard Nelson onwards, Baker stands out alone. A Baker drama usually finds people in suspension: a closing cinema, an isolated hotel commemorating the Civil War, a board meeting convened by an absent tycoon. Infinite Life, written in the different, pre-pandemic world of 2018, returns to the format of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick: people static, staring out.
Not here at a dead screen where the audience are, but on eternity in the guise of a parking lot with a bakery in dots’ set, a simple arrangement of green sunbeds and a concrete floral-pattern wall behind with one simple exit stage-right. Isabella Byrd’s lighting works hard to shift hours and days, and Bray Poor’s sound enhances spectral stasis.
Sofi (Christina Kirk) is the youngest at 47, separated from her husband; she’s the narrative thread too. Nothing occurs without her on stage, so it’s not surprising she breaks out of role to announce the time lapses “eight hours … twenty-five hours” and so on. For once Baker’s privileging one character over others. But each character is given a moment for inwardness, reflecting on pain, sex, and eternity – as Sofi notes, “like some punishment in a fairy tale”. Though it’s also about how we accept and accommodate our broken humanity, recognizing our common frailty; in brief, being human with a dimmer switch.
Sofi’s also the most cerebral and in her later explicit directness and desires echoes the much younger Rose from The Flick. Alone she calls her husband Pete leaving searing voicemails, then the man whom she merely cheated with verbally by leaving explicit sexual fantasies: an update on the never-meeting epistolary couple in Under Milk Wood.
First there’s frail Eileen (Marylouise Burke, hypnotic as she drawls out her fragile testimony or takes mild offence to Sofi’s searing and vanishes). She says laconically “This was the night you heard me screaming” before adding harrowing details. Yvette (Mia Katigbak) is maddeningly good at the relentless until she shows fragility behind the physical. Yvette over-shares – like a litany – every -itis, and its corollary: a pharmaceutical or surgical cure.
When Yvette says her cousin “narrates pornography for blind people” it opens up fissures as Ginnie says it’s “a generational thing”. When Sofi notes of her generation “half the women I know watch pornography” invisible boundaries are crossed. It’s a telling moment with the discovery of other people’s spaces; where this liminal half-world lulls you into thinking there are none – especially when you’re high on fasting.
Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen, a warm interposer) radiates sympathy and is first to help Eileen who stops dead for no reason. She also explains Eileen’s Christianity to Sofi. It’s here Baker manages one of her lightning sketches on eternity. Ginnie’s own epiphany comes when she narrates the moment she realizes through illness and pain that she can’t have children. It’s like “shedding a skin … then I was fine”. Nielsen’s Ginnie sees in the round and cheerily hunts down gossip.
Though least elaborated, Elaine (Brenda Pressley) is Yvette’s obverse. Pressley brings out Elaine’s warm alertness to others’ hurt whilst also pointing up her fixation on organic cures and health as a moral imperative that cusps new-age exhortation. The kind that suggests if you’re in pain, you’ve asked to be, but aren’t ready to hear it. Even here though, Baker pulls back: the suggestion’s muted.
This rhythm is mildly disrupted when Nelson (Pete Simpson, a hypnotic slow-burn) appears magically. Sofi thinks she’s dreamt him till he returns; there’s instant chemistry. Nelson may charm but inevitably establishes his victim hierarchy of pain as greater than childbirth. They drift briefly over Eliot’s plot for want of small talk, but again Baker draws out their encounters to just two, where Sofi talks explicitly. Ultimately Sofi asks to see screenshots of Nelson’s colonoscopy: a corollary of his visual, her auditory approach to describing sex.
The denouement too – Baker fast-forwards in telegraphic moments – is quietly moving. Not overtly devastating, but in just a few revelations and physical moments Baker returns to her first two characters, Eileen and Sofi. A world of connection widens out of pain and ageing. Infinite Life is a hypnotic masterpiece affirming Baker as the finest American dramatist of her generation.