One is constantly learning when going to/reading /writing about theatre, there’s just so much of it to take in! Unknown to me, Eduardo Di Filippo is apparently a giant of Italian theatre but even this, The Syndicate – a version of Il Sindico Del Rione Sanità by Mike Poulton – is receiving its British premiere here, indicating that my ignorance is perhaps a little forgivable. Playing at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, it boasts a healthy cast of 20 headed by Sir Ian McKellen, on a break from filming The Hobbit.
McKellen plays Antonio Barracano, a man smuggled to New York by the local Godfather after murdering a man in his native Naples. After many years accumulating wealth and reputation by working for the mob there, he returns to his hometown as a man of standing amongst the criminal classes who look to him to dispense his own individual brand of justice and one particular case, intervene in a vicious dispute between a son and his father, the son’s murderous urges reminding Don Antonio of his own youthful indiscretion.
As a role, it is one which suits McKellen down to the ground: dryly funny, steely cold, elevated to a state of great reverence by those who seek his judgement and utterly convincing at shifting subtly among these many facets. But the play feels fundamentally flawed in the way in portrays Neapolitan ganglife: there’s something of a rather romanticised view of honour and moral codes here that really makes the play feel dated, especially in a post-The Godfather age. Everything is just too cosy here, not enough sense of the darkness, of the criminality that is actually at the heart of what is going on. Personally it is films like Gomorrah and books like the excellent Cosa Nostra that ought to be replacing these outdated notions on the stage.
Di Filippo’s play is also a little too episodic in its structure, flitting from story to story before reaching a conclusion in which everyone is gathered together to receive their judgements, recalling nothing so much as the ending of an Agatha Christie combined with a grandstanding final scene which feels a little gratuitous. Everything looks good in Sean Mathias’ production and in a large ensemble, there’s plenty of talent: Michael Pennington’s lifelong-serving doctor is excellent, Gavin Fowler and Oliver Cotton as the duelling father/son are good, but there’s also a bit too much scene-chewing and perhaps predictably the women’s roles suck, the luminous Cherie Lunghi being pretty much wasted as Don Antonio’s wife.
It is an undoubted pleasure to watch McKellen on the stage, especially such an intimate one as the Minerva, and there are moments of excellence in The Syndicate. But this does feel a curiously old-fashioned choice of play to mount with little to commend it, especially to a modern audience who are far more clued into the reality of what Mafioso are actually guilty of.