THE PELICAN, not surprisingly, is one of August Strindberg's less popular works. Written by a man preparing to die, the play is an expression of an over-powering scorn for the world and a sincere pity for humanity. In this, his last of four "chamber plays," so called for their resemblance to chamber music. Strindberg emphasizes theme and development rather-than plot and character. In what he called his "last sonata," Strindberg composed a relentlessly horrifying vision of life.
The plot is simple, a domestic tragedy caused by an ego-maniacal mother who has starved and frozen her children and brought the family to bankruptcy, in order to hoard money for herself and her lover. Although the constantly compares herself to the pelican, which theoretically gives its own heart's blood to feed its young, she is in truth one of Strindberg's vampire women, a carnivore devouting its offspring. When she has driven her husband to his death, she traps her paramour by forcing him to marry her naive, love-starved daughter using a non-existant inheritance as bait.
Ironically, Strindberg takes a traditionally comic situation--a mother and daughter in love with the same man--and uses it, to extract the themes that pervade all four chamber plays: the world is as cruelly fraudulent as the mother in the play, guilt is implicit in life, and death--"the final settling of accounts"--is the one escape route.
The alcoholic, consumptive but clairvoyant son is the mouthpiece for these themes, discovering and laying bare the shamefulness of his "Pelican" mother. The role is central to the unfolding of the drama and treacherous for any actor, demanding the illusions of drunkenness, terminal illness sudden realizations and even borderline madness. Fortunately for this production as a whole. Bart Naylor's performance as the son is close to flawless. In a play that leaves much scope for crossing the line to melodrama and heavy handedness, and in a presentation in which the other actors allow themselves from time to time to slip over the edge. Naylor creates an agonizingly credible and sympathetic character. The realism of his emotion is never marred by a tendency towards the soap operatic.
The fundamental failure of Chris Healey's production of The Pelican lies in its inability to immerse the audience in the mood and theme to the point where plot would become irrelevant and melodrama less of a hazard. Unhappily, the visual and aural effects through which Strindberg intended to achieve this are unsuccessful. Admittedly, conditions in the Ex don't make things any easier. The not-so-mysterious rocking chair rocks frantically and becomes at first funny, then ridiculous; a letter leaps, rather than flutters, off a table; vitally important silences and pauses are mercilessly trampled over. Delicate changes of mood are hopelessly lost.
THE PROBLEM is accentuated by the fact that the scenes between mother (Bonnie DeLorme) and son succeed, only to have their intensity shattered by the entrance of the other actors. Eleni Constantine's performance as the daughter is erratic, combining a marvellous sleepwalking trance and deceptive, wide-eyed childishness, with sudden, apparently unaccountable changes of mood. The opportunist son-in-law (Don Guiney) is portrayed as too much of an arch-villain, overly conspiratorial, first with one side and then the other, weilding his cane about like a swagger stick. The pity that Strindberg felt for such a pathetic victim of the vampire mother is buried under Guiney's excessive eye-shifting and oiley immorality.
The "dream" of uncomprehended life through which the family has been wandering blindly and from which the son is finally awakened--by the spirit of his father--is much more a nightmare. But to awaken from it can only bring death. It should be a nightmare in which the audience becomes as immersed, as was Strindberg in his own anguish. Although Naylor as the son succeeds in drawing the audience into his personal drama and DeLorme succeeds in adding to this a further dimension, one is rarely allowed to feel that universal pity that was so significant a part of Strindberg's awakening. The production lacks cohesion: air filters in through the cracks and ruins the effect of suffocation.