When I was young, my mother used to say that if I watched too much television, I’d get square eyes. That was in the early days of home PCs and laptops, iPads, smartphones were all still to come. An excess of screen-time was considered a physical concern for a small child in the 1980s, not a spiritual one, but as Chris Goode’s Infinite Lives shows, these days it can be a concern for the soul too.
The play’s main character, John, is perhaps a little older than me He has memories of a video game he used to play called Miner Willy. Using a particular cheat code, Willy could be awarded an infinite number of lives, allowing John to continue playing the game indefinitely. A bug in the system meant, however, that if Willy were to fall, he would drop and die only to appear at the top of the screen again, alive, to fall once more, caught in this infinite cycle of falling and dying and not dying, neither in the game nor out of it; the cycle could only be broken by rebooting the game. John himself, it becomes clear, is caught like Miner Willy, his life and soul stuck in a limbo between the real world and a virtual one.
Brilliantly played by Ray Scannell, John is a quiet, thoughtful character who’s jacked in his boring job in order to write a novel. His plan for the novel, though, is pretty patchy though. He’s also looking for love, and in its absence he finds comfort in a young man called Carlos who’s a regular performer on an internet porn site which John visits. John finds himself leaving his flat less and less as his attachment to ‘Carlos’ becomes more and more ‘real.’ John’s life gradually shrinks down to the space between his screen and keyboard.
Goode’s play, written in 2008 and only now being given its first full production, takes the form of a monologue; it’s a gentle but forthright piece, neither aiming to shock nor skirting round difficult or explicit language or ideas. John has a very clearly defined sense of humour, and a great deal of honesty and integrity. We get to know and like him. We’re intrigued by his sci-fi novel about two gay amphibious humans living together in a ‘future’ where people fly around on jetmobiles and everyone is happy. The wider themes of the piece are bold and unsettling. Surely John’s situation and choices should feel reductive, negative, frustrating, and yet John exists so near to a horrible truth that we accept him and hope the same doesn’t happen to us.
Scannell’s captivating performance is aided by Timothy X Atack’s soundtrack and Alex Wright’s digital projections, which blend a contemporary digital world with something more retro and tongue-in-cheek, the endearing bleeping of the ZX Spectrum. Nik Partridge’s direction is also accomplished; the play is very verbal, it could almost be a radio play, but Partridge makes this static quality work in the play’s favour, taking us into John’s bedroom, into his head, as he goes through this hollow period of his life.
Infinite Lives is difficult viewing at times. The night after seeing the show, I dreamt I was given a small lunchbox with a single grape, a cherry tomato and a cube of cheese in it. All around me I had access to all the biscuits and crisps I wanted, and this little box contained the only good things in the world. I woke up feeling sick and terrified. It’s so easy to fall off the screen, to sit staring until you get square eyes – but you have to cling on to the small things, just as John clings on to the telephone call from his niece in the outside world, a call which causes him to take his eyes off the screen and look out of the window at a bright new day.