Bath Theatre Royal
10 September 2011, matinee
By Eduardo de Filippo
New version by Mike Poulton
Directed by Sean Mathias
Chichester Festival Theatre Production
with Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington
I knew nothing about Eduardo de Filippo (1900-1984), and known in Italy simply as Eduardo. According to the programme, his stature in Italy was a combination of ‘Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier, Alan Bennett and the Late Queen Mother.” That’s stretching it a tad. A writer who produced his own plays and starred in then brings Noel Coward to mind rather than Shakespeare. The Syndicate was written in 1960, and I can’t believe Eduardo’s passed me by. The play is beautifully constructed and plotted, and moves effortlessly between drama, action, comedy and tragedy. It’s described as black comedy.
The story is about a Neapolitan Mafia don. The Mafia don has become a stock figure from The Godfatherseries through Goodfellas to The Sopranos. Don Corleone, and Tony Soprano are fascinating villains. We can identify, applaud them when they do something positive, but recoil in horror when they explode in violence. We are in no doubt that they’re baddies. It’s more ambivalent in Italy. An example. I was on a lecture tour in Italy. In every town I was warned not to leave valuables in my room. We arrived in Naples, at the best hotel of the tour so far. Don’t carry any valuables around Naples on your person, I was told, leave them in your hotel room. I pointed out there was no room safe. That’s no problem, came the reply. This is a Mafia-owned hotel. No one would dare steal anything from a guest here. That’s why we’re staying here. Naples is a dangerous city. So there was a positive side to their legit business. They might take a cut off the mugger who robbed you in the street, but if you’d paid to stay in their hotel, your security there was guaranteed.
Ian McKellen plays Don Antonio Barracano, a 75 year old world-weary Don. The first two acts take place in his house outside Naples, the third in his house in the city. The play starts with high drama as a man wounded in a gun shoot out is carried into the house by his assailant. Ambivalence again. The doctor, (played by Michael Pennington) has to remove the bullet, assisted by the housekeeper (Jane Bertish) and Don Antonio’s daughter (Margaret Clunie). Don Antonio can’t be woken. A word on the sound design (by Fergus O’Hare). There’s always something going on, and it’s exceptional from the lightning that starts the play, through the guard dogs outside, cars arriving and leaving, the street traffic outside when they get to Naples, then music in the dinner scene.
Don Antonio with supplicants. Rafiluccio talking with him.
Don Antonio dispenses justice with the wisdom of Solomon. He also does it with great humour, and the way he turns things is intriguing and funny. His justice is compared to the corruption of the official system. The plot’s central theme begins when a young man, Rafiluccio Santaniello (Gavin Fowler) turns up with his heavily-pregnant girlfriend (Annie Hemingway). Rafiluccio announces that he intends to murder his father, Arturo Santaniello, the next day. Don Antonio really decides to go the extra mile in sorting this out. He interviews Arturo, and tells the story of how he started on the path of murder and mayhem at eighteen. I’m not going to spoil the plot, but Don Antonio does not resort to Sopranos-style violence, though he has the people with him to maintain the threat. Right at the start, he threatens the doctor, his right-hand man for 35 years, with murder if he retires.
L to R: Gennaro, his son (Phillip Correia) / Don Antonio / Donna Armida
A pointed scene is when his wife, Donna Armida (Cherie Lunghi) returns from hospital after being savaged by one of Don Antonio’s beloved guard dogs. Great wound make up, by the way, both here and in the initial operation scene. He gently persuades her that it’s her fault, and fends off the offers of his sons to shoot the dog. It’s her fault, though her task of nurturing the family by collecting fresh eggs for his breakfast at 1 a.m., is what got her injured. She accepts it. This is not a world for women, though Rita, the pregnant girlfriend (or rather “woman”) of Rafiluccio gives the spirited response to the Don that his family avoid.
Don Antonio, daughter, housekeeper and wife
The last act involves Don Antonio addressing invited dinner guests. This is innovative, with the entire speech done as the table slowly revolves, so that it’s as if we’re a camera on a track revolving around the action. It’s a cinematic device, worked brilliantly for theatre. We were thrilled to see McKellen. My wife and co-writer, Karen, had had tickets to see him in Hamlet as a student, and had been unable to get to the production. It’s been a long wait, and it was not a disappointment. She missed the long dying scene in Hamlet, but got an even longer one in The Syndicate. Sometimes when you see a major star on stage, their performance shrivels the rest of the cast. In contrast, McKellen works with the other actors, so that every person on stage comes across as brilliant, as in this production, indeed they are. Michael Pennington gets equal billing over the title and his doctor is a great characterisation.
Michael Pennington as Doctor Fabio Della Ragione
I can always find them, but here I really, really have to look. I’d work on the intelligibility of the Scottish accent of the actor who plays the young gunmen. We found his lines very hard to follow. As McKellen says in the intro, it would be absurd to do Eduardo with Italian accents (which has been done with other plays). But it’s also true that the Neapolitan mafia would have homogenous accents , and anyone who sounded as if from another region of Italy would not be trusted.
This was a rare Bath matinee, with not a single geriatric interruption from the audience. Maybe the play was so clear and well-done as to avoid it. Maybe it’s just that Bath on a Saturday afternoon is too frantic, so they stick to mid week. We usually do too, but had failed to get in to see it at Chichester in the original run.