Time has gone gooey but small events register with startling vividness. The combination of lethargy and stabbing intensity that characterised lockdown is probably the nearest many of us lucky ones have come to experiencing what it is like to be chronically ill. The American playwright Annie Baker is not the first person to suggest that pain is another country, something you can be “in”: for once, an invocation of Virginia Woolf in a theatre programme is justified. Baker is, though, surely the first to demonstrate the all-encompassing nature of illness to such extraordinary dramatic effect.
Infinite Life is set in a clinic in which normal life is reversed, as if in a negative print. In front of a mildly decorative wall, five women stretch out on loungers, sipping drinks through bent straws. They are not enjoying cocktails while sunbathing: they are fasting; some of them are imbibing chemicals. One man turns up but, hey, he is subsidiary, really there mostly to be ogled. Oh, and the youngest of these women is 47. Their age, which makes them unusual stage stars, and their free-ranging chattiness recall Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, which the director of Baker’s play, James Macdonald, staged with the same skewering lightness. There is another echo: everyday observations and mild manners leap into wildness and tiny weirdness. One woman displays her colouring book; the man has a picture of his colonoscopy on his phone, which another woman wants him to send her. There is a terrifying description of physical anguish during sex. And talk of a thyroid camp for cats.
Pinter is up there with Shakespeare as an emphatic, inventive curser
Here, as in earlier plays The Flick and John – both produced at the National – Baker is meticulous and mighty. She takes things slowly, moving from minute to minute. This chimes with the care the invalids take: they walk as if against some unseen resistance. The gradual unfolding, with dialogue cushioned by considerable silences, becomes more and more absorbing, proving that when things drag in the theatre it is not because the pace is slow but because imaginative torpor has set in.
One patient, played by Christina Kirk, announces the passing of time – “19 minutes” or “21 hours” – with a casual contempt. She gives, as does every member of the cast, a performance of extraordinary, almost documentary transparency. She is sprawled out reading Daniel Deronda. I have never seen someone show so clearly the small, irritated flick of the eye a reader gives when interrupted, or heard such a good account of that book – boring when you are away from it, yet engrossing when you are in it. That turns out to be a description of Infinite Life itself. A critique can’t capture it: you have to be there.
In a strange mirror image of Baker’s cast, The Homecoming sets five men around the polarising force of one woman. Butchers, boxers and the whisper of stockinged legs: Harold Pinter’s 1965 play is a graphic study of sexual excitement and power manoeuvres. Its plot switchbacks violently, with unnerving changes of gear: a man returns to his all-male family with his young wife; she takes his brother to bed in front of them all; the men openly set about pimping her. Its language is snarling – Pinter is up there with Shakespeare as an emphatic, inventive curser – but also balletically ornate. Its characters’ motives, fuelled by long-buried secrets, are obscured. You are hard put to know who will end up on top.
Stealth and a powerful sense of undercurrent are the play’s motors. They do not power Matthew Dunster’s production. Although jazz slams down noisily between scenes to signal excitement, and sudden lighting changes flag up and freeze dramatically vital moments, the atmosphere is tepid. Peculiarly wreathed in ozone on press night, Moi Tran’s design is too pastel and spacious for hugger-mugger seediness. Performances mostly demonstrate rather than insinuate.
As the bullying patriarch, Jared Harris waves his walking stick, semaphores with his arms and roars. Lisa Diveney, doll-like in an improbable slit-to-the-thigh gown, is more blank than enigmatic. Robert Emms makes her husband simply a wimp; the play is more convincing with a hint of complicity. There is, though, subtlety from Nicolas Tennant, and real Pinterish amoral energy from Joe Cole. He has the best speeches, including a nifty dissection of Christianity. He delivers them in a voice so clipped that it seems disembodied and with a self-delight that propels him dancing around the stage.
Stephen Sondheim’s rarely revived Pacific Overtures, first seen on Broadway in 1976, is an intriguing thing: irradiated by the brilliance of its composer-lyricist – and undermined by it. The story traces the opening up of Japan to the west, forced by United States gunboats in 1853; it is told from the Japanese point of view. The script is by John Weidman.
In a co-production between the Menier and the Umeda Arts Theater, Osaka, Matthew White directs a small-scale but sumptuous production. Paul Farnsworth’s set and Ayako Maeda’s costumes are by turn glittering, austere and frisky: simple, beak-like wooden prows; the shogun in spiky gold; sliding screens; boats sitting on hats; flickering, scarlet-flecked parasols.
The trouble is an exquisite one. Several of Sondheim’s numbers capture the idea of merging traditions – and of imperialism – so perfectly that there is little need for the surrounding dialogue and laying out of chronology. A rapid-fire series of musical parodies includes a quick-tongued take-off of Gilbert and Sullivan and a can-can (briskly choreographed by Ashley Nottingham) that makes Offenbach look like a composer of minuets. An entire history of influence is invoked in A Bowler Hat. A duet between a samurai and his western-leaning friend beautifully splices together American and Japanese landscapes, rhythms and attitudes. To the chime of raindrops, the two men offer alternative lines of haiku: the water suggests to one the moon, glistening birch trees and the silk his lady wears; for the other it summons memories of soaking Boston streets. Perfectly condensed. As is proved in Old Friends, still in town, Sondheim can put a whole scene into a song.
Star ratings (out of five)
Infinite Life ★★★★★
The Homecoming ★★
Pacific Overtures ★★★