Infinite Life, National Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Experimental
  • Recommended


Infinite Life

5 out of 5 stars

The peerless Annie Baker’s latest play is a mind-bending exploration of sex, pain and bodies set at a very strange California clinic

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

In every play by Annie Baker, the characters are trapped in a sort of purgatory. In ‘The Aliens’ it was the alley behind a coffee shop; in ‘The Flick’ it was a cinema; in ‘John’ a B&B; in ‘The Antipodes’ it was an endless pitch meeting that may have in fact been literal Purgatory.

In ‘Infinite Life’ it’s a residential health clinic. Or something that looks like one. 

There’s a patterned brick wall and a selection of sun loungers, anyway, although there’s no signage that suggests this is actually a clinic. Lighting notionally corresponds to the clinic’s north California locale: glaring in the day, virtually pitch black at night. 

Why does there seem to be no staff? Why do ‘treatments’ only involve fasting or drinking weird green smoothies? Why is there no outdoor lighting? Why does the daylight look so unnatural? Why does time move so strangely, in jerks and leaps as the cast break the fourth wall to inform us that an often-huge amount of time has suddenly passed?

I don’t think the clinic is meant to literally be anything other than a clinic. But in James Macdonald’s exquisitely droll production, it takes on definite shades of the metaphysical: certainly the women - and one man - seem to be going through a process that totally transcends ‘healthcare’.

Baker’s play nominally focuses on Sofi (Christina Kirk), who at 47 is the youngest woman at the clinic by some way. It’s day one of her fasting-based ‘treatment’ and she’s reading a book: ‘Daniel Deronda’, which she describes as ‘weird and great’ to Eileen (Marylouise Burke), the oldest woman checked in there. More women join them; flopped in loungers they occupy for days at a time, the women’s glacially-paced conversation frequently becomes hilariously weird – Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen) goes off on one about sphincters, including ‘tiny sphincters in your eye’; Yvette (Mia Katigbak) tells a rambling anecdote about how her second cousin does the audio descriptions for porn film; Elaine (Brenda Pressley) tells an increasingly unsettling story about how she used ‘chimichanga’ as a safe word when trying to deal with her husband’s rage.

No matter how weird, the conversation drifts back to the bodily; building towards the eventually apparent themes of this extraordinary play, which is how the experience of pain shapes your experience of reality, and how desire is transformed by living in a body in constant pain.

Or to put it another way, the mild-mannered, lisp-voiced Sofi is both in physical agony and extremely horny. She is hoping a spell at the clinic will purge either the pain or the desire, but a tremendous spanner is thrown in the works by the arrival of silver fox Nelson (Pete Simpson), who shambles around with his top off, not exactly stacked but very much A Man.

In the hands of a lesser playwright (who had, for some reason, decided to write a weird play about horny people at a pain clinic) ‘Infinite Life’ would probably pivot around a kooky meet cute between Sofi and Nelson from which they’d both grow and learn. But behind her surreal humour and existential whimsy, Baker deals only in harsh, primal truth. Sofi is in too much pain to be cute; Nelson is a grade-A douche who looks bored the entire time, except for when he brightly declares himself to work in ‘fintech’ and then looks crushed when Sofi doesn’t know what that is.

There are no flashy performances here, but the cast is uniformly superb. For some of them the requirement is simply to be drily funny, but Kirk is tremendous as a quiet woman feeling incomprehensible things, and in her final scene Burke (who was also wonderful in Baker’s ‘John’) wrings tremendous, hitherto unsuspected depths out of Eileen.

People aren’t supposed to come out of purgatory older and wiser, because that’s not how purgatory works - they move on becau

se they’ve done their allotted time. The same for the characters in Baker’s plays. Perhaps the clinic just represents life: we check in, we waste our time with a bunch of pointless treatments while trying to understand our bodies, we check out.

Baker’s most oblique work to date? Maybe. But it’s also her most compassionate. ‘Infinite Life’ is a lucid fever dream, a trippy vision of profound truth, an exploration of how desire and pain influence and are influenced by the feeble bags of meat our consciousness are bound to. 

It is another extraordinary play from a writer seemingly capable of nothing else.


£20-£60. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
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