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Theatre review Unhappy days

MARY CONWAY is stunned by a conversational comedy whose every platitude is a deliberate conduit to deeply human complexities beneath

Infinite Life
National Theatre - Dorfman

PULITZER Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker is an original voice in American theatre. Unfettered by fashionable obsessions, her genius lies in new philosophical takes on simple stories of American life, and in the particular ear she has for meandering conversation that exemplifies the way people not only talk but think. 

Infinite Life at the Dorfman surprises with every line, every platitude a deliberate conduit to deeply human complexities beneath. It’s a play where the drama takes place in the invisible world of human mentality, the outer physical expressions such as speech and movement signifying only the socialised — and therefore unremarkable — utterances of ordinary people. Behind the superficial and banal, the experience is intense and profound.

The setting is an alternative health retreat in California where five women are enduring the slow, hard, miserable grind of fasting, dosing and irrigating for weeks at a time in the hope of relieving their illness and pain. The variety of diseases and disorders suffered between them is shocking, and we are left in no doubt that each woman inhabits a daily hell.

The brilliance of the writing is in the creation of casual conversation that lays humanity bare. In this glittering allegory, we see how all life is about lone suffering, getting through the time, kidding ourselves with goals and objectives and finally changing nothing and ducking out. But the great thing is we see the funny side so that this is also comedy par excellence. 

The play with this company has come direct to the National Theatre from its premiere in New York, where its focus on the inner life of women was seen to be both timely and pioneering. 

Sofi played by Christina Kirk is only 47 as she tells us often. She’s been married for years and has no children. Now she has a terribly painful, as yet undiagnosed, condition which has attacked the various contents of her pelvis and in particular caused chronic discomfort in her genitals. As we learn more about her, she shares with us her desperate sexual desire which is now linked with pain and thus laughably absurd. When a rare, bare-chested male (Pete Simpson) joins the group, we feel Sofi’s longing and share in her woman’s torment. 

Simultaneously, she is reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, revealing eventually that she repeatedly peruses the same sentence: stuck in the moment and not life’s narrative. Indeed, the dead weight of time passing is a major feature of the play.

James Macdonald directs with marvellous empathy and at a flawless pace that shapes the humour and confirms the comedy. Marylouise Burke commands the stage as Eileen while Mia Katigbak, Kristine Nielsen and Brenda Pressley define the other roles with absolute panache. 

When night arrives in the course of the narrative, the lighting fades and we are able to share something of the women’s private time.  

And in the end, that we are trapped in our bodies — alone and somehow passing time — is the relentless mantra: hilarious in the moment, searingly profound in the longer term.

Runs until 13 January 2024. Box Office: 020 3989 5455, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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