The Syndicate – August 2011

6/10

By: Eduardo de Filippo

Directed by: Sean Matthias

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th August 2011

We’ve seen some of De Filippo’s work before – Inner Voices, Filumena and Saturday, Sunday and Monday that I specifically remember. His detailed explorations of Neapolitan life are certainly interesting, and probably very accurate, but I felt tonight that this was another play in which the research done by the cast during rehearsal gave them an insight and connection to the characters that didn’t come across fully to the audience, at least not to me. The performances were all excellent of course, but the writing was aimed at those in the know, and we weren’t. Having said that, it was a very good production, and I wouldn’t object to seeing this play again sometime – perhaps I’d get more out of it second time around.

The set was fabulous. We’d seen it several times already, as some of the rehearsed readings of Rattigan plays that Chichester are doing this summer had this set as a backdrop. The location is the reception room of the local Mafia boss, Don Antonio Barracano at his villa in the hills above Naples. A sweep of French windows round the back of the stage was matched by a beautiful inlaid parquetry floor with a classical oval pattern in the middle. There were doors to right and left, and also a couple of paintings, one on each side of the windows, which concealed such useful devices as the telephone. To the right stood the Don’s desk, a large table with one chair – his – and there was a comfy chair and table centre front. A large chandelier hung in the centre of the room. The opulence was clear.

The story was fairly simple. Don Antonio is the real authority in the area – the police and judges are just a bureaucratic nuisance that has to be endured from time to time – and his day is largely spent dealing with the various disputes and requests from his ‘subjects’. One of these encounters leaves the Don with a serious wound, and as various ‘witnesses’ gather for a farewell feast, the question is: who will succeed this powerful man, and what will happen to his empire as a result?

The play begins with a shooting, triggered by an argument between two men who are rival rent boys working the docks to pick up sailors. One, belonging to the Don’s clan, had been ill, and when came back to work he found another man had taken his place, a very lucrative spot. The wounded man is brought into the room and the doctor (Michael Pennington) is woken up to treat him. It all looked horribly real to us, but I’m sure no actors were harmed in the making of this performance. When the Don has risen, breakfasted (on bread and milk) and dressed, he deals with these two strictly but very fairly, and although I wasn’t entirely convinced there’d be no more trouble, it was a much better result than lots of bloodshed.

That was the gist of the Don’s approach, which emerged as he talked with the doctor, a long-time partner in crime, and some of the others. He just wanted to make the world a better place. This could seem absurd, but this was an earlier time, when the Mafia weren’t into hardcore drugs and sex trafficking, and a large part of their attraction for ordinary Italians in the post-war years was their ability to maintain order when the state institutions were in a shambles. As we’re not shown the Don actually being violent, they could just about get away with this approach, although I did find the Don’s exculpation of his Rottweiler’s attack on his wife very creepy. Through questioning her, he discovered that she’d crossed the line by entering the chicken coop, and as the dogs were meant to guard the chickens, amongst other things, she actually caused the attack herself! Her willingness to agree with him was comic, but also suggested that he’s not the big softy he was claiming to be.

Another young man turns up with a pregnant woman, and asks for the Don’s help. He and the woman want to get married, and there are family difficulties. In the course of dealing with the young man’s problems, the Don is stabbed by accident, and realises that he hasn’t got long to live. To save his family from the intrusion of the authorities, he heads for their town house in Naples, and arranges an impromptu feast, with the doctor and lots of the minor characters invited. In his final speech, he passes control of his organisation to the doctor, who’d previously been keen to give it all up and leave. Now, with the Don dead in the next room, he not only assumes the mantle of Don-ship, he displays a vigorous enthusiasm for his new job, quite at odds with his earlier sentiments. It’s a believable volte-face, reminiscent of many similar changes of heart, especially by politicians, but although it was credible I didn’t find it an entirely satisfactory conclusion to the play. I wasn’t engaged enough by the characters to care what happened to them, so the denouement, while it was a slight surprise, didn’t particularly move me. Just one of those things.

Ian McKellen gave a good performance as the Don, full of whimsical fancies with the occasional suggestions of both menace and madness (and what can be more menacing than madness in powerful people?). I particularly liked his solution to the young man’s debt problem; when the greedy creditor wouldn’t let up on his demands, the Don paid back the debt himself, using the stash of transparent money he kept in the (locked) invisible drawer at the front of his desk. The threat under the light-heartedness was clear to see, and the creditor couldn’t say no.

While I agree with the observation that it’s how the other people treat you that shows who the king is, I did feel that a bit more from Ian McKellen would have helped in this department. He was just a bit too cuddly at times, so the reactions from the others were sometimes at odds with his interpretation rather than supporting it. He did cover a fair range in his performance, and no doubt he enjoyed himself in the process, but perhaps a bit more steel from him would have helped overall. Again, we’re not Neapolitans, so we needed a little more information at times to help us relate to these people and their situations more fully.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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