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The Syndicate

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Mail Online, 3rd August 2011, Quentin Letts

Down at the Minerva in Chichester, Sir Ian McKellen is playing a Neapolitan mafia don. Not that you would think that from looking at and listening to him.

With the grey moustache and crinkly eyes and creaky voice he is rather more like Harold Macmillan, thought with a flattish nose. Supermac as Superwhack, the criminal boss who kills his challengers.

Sir Ian is worth watching but in this daring show - risque because it flirts with the idea that the mafia are a force for justice - it is his fellow veteran, Michael Pennington, who takes the garlands.

Mr Pennington is elderly Doctor Fabio who has worked most of his life for Sir Ian’s Don Antonio.

There is a beautiful delicacy to Mr Pennington’s stage work. If Fabio throws a lingering stare, it is not overdone.

When his voice cracks it is not “theatrical”. He is master of elegant sufficiency, never too much, just enough to let us see.

Unlike some other actors in this production - including, surprisingly, Sir Ian - he is entirely audible throughout.

Gosh, there is a lot of gabbling here. Eduardo De Filippo’s story shows Don Antonio not so much as a gangland heave as a local judge, his country residence serving as an ad hoc court.

He assists the poor who are being milked by usurers. He encourages fathers to show mercy to feckless sons.

A mundane set only comes good in the final party scene, where the table revolves to give the three-sided auditorium a views of all the guests. Don Antonio, by now ailing, is given a microphone.

At once Sir Ian’s vocal characterisation, until this point unmemorable, reaches a higher level. He does run up a lovely death scene, Sir Ian.

Oliver Cotton is good as an honest baker who has the decency to defy Don Antonio’s bullying. Gavin Fowler as the baker’s son and Cherie Lunghi as the Don’s wife have strong moments.

I may have been a little mean to Sir Ian. But the reason this production is worth catching is the economic brilliance of Mr Pennington and the closing suggestion from playwright De Filippo that the cheating, violent populace earn the mafia they deserve.

The Guardian, 3rd August 2011, Michael Billington

As anyone who had the luck to see Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Napoli Milonaria will know, Eduardo de Filippo was one of the greatest figures of European theatre. But his penultimate play, written in 1960 and here getting its British premiere in a new translation by Mike Poulton, strikes me as one of his lesser pieces. Full of pious good intentions but awkward stagecraft, it is chiefly memorable for a glorious central performance from Ian McKellen.

McKellen plays Don Antonio: a Neapolitan godfather who rules the city’s underworld with a whim of iron but who sees it as his mission to dispense rough justice to victims of civic corruption. So we see Don Antonio rescuing the poor from exploitative loan-sharks, intervening in territorial gun battles and arbitrating in a bitter dispute between a baker and his son.

Although the doctor-friend who has stood by Don Antonio for 35 years sees him as barking mad, we are clearly meant to admire this quixotic dreamer who envisages a world “with no dark corners”. But what undermines the play is less its sentimentality than the technical clumsiness of the final act chiefly here, you feel, to provide Eduardo with a good death scene and enable him to get his message across.

Still, there is always the acting, and McKellen gives superb value as this this  unquiet Don. First seen shadow-boxing in his dressing gown, he captures perfectly the sleek vanity of this septuagenarian overlord. McKellen also has the instinctive authority if a man used to being obeyed: he prowls round his living room like a tiger, greets his supplicants with lordly concern, and has the vocal huskiness that seems inseparable from mafia bosses.

True to Eduardo’s intention, McKellen also suggest that this particular capo, tormented by a killing he committed in his youth, is a thwarted idealist: a Robin Hood in Armani clothing who wants to clean up the streets of Naples and put an end to senseless vendettas.

Sean Mathias’s handsome production also contains a number of very good performances. Michael Pennington invests the Don’s medical sidekick with exactly the right air of terrified loyalty, Oliver Cotton exudes white-suited arrogance as a dictatorial master baker, and Gavin Fowler lends his maltreated son a simmering, murderous resentment. But, although the play is clearly the work of a good man who understood Naples and its people and who devoutly wished for a better world, it’s an evening where you rejoice more in the acting than in the over-optimistic message.

The Telegraph, 3rd August 2011, Charles Spencer

Sir Ian McKellen clearly has a soft spot for the popular Italian dramatist Eduardo De Filippo (1900 - 1984).

Twenty years ago he appeared in the playwright’s Napoli Milionaria at the National Theatre, in which Naples was bizarrely represented by the entire cast speaking in Scouse accents.

Now in a break from filming The Hobbit, in which he is once again appearing as Gandalf, McKellen has taken on another of De Filippo’s plays.

In The Syndicate McKellen plays a man who committed murder in his youth “albeit with the strongest provocation” and was smuggled to safety in the United States by a local Italian Godfather.

After a period working for the ,ob in New York, he returned to Naples with the ambition of settling disputes between the small-time crooks in his home town.

By turns menacing and kindly, authoritarian and compassionate, the man has become a revered figure among the felonious and the dispossessed who constantly come to seek his advice and judgement.

It’s a bit juicy role for McKellen - and one can see why he was attracted to it - but after Coppola’s great Godfather movies it has to be said that The Syndicate seems excessively cosy and sentimental in its view of the criminal classes.

Despite his strong stage presence McKellen cuts a bizarre figure as the good-hearted Neapolitan Godfather, making offers people can’t refuse like Brando with a Lancashire accent but bearing a strange physical resemblance to Sir Harold Macmillan.

At any moment you half expect him to tell the small time villains he’s dealing with that they have never had it so good.

At his best DE Filippo could be a great dramatist but this play strikes me a decidedly second-rate.

The narrative drifts along, moving from one strand to another, while Don Antonio’s attempt to save a young man from committing the kind of “justified” murder that got him into such trouble many years earlier seems excessively contrived and sentimental.

Only in the final scene, in which many of the play’s characters are gathered together to have judgement pronounced upon them, does this episodic play finally begin to grip.

But it is all a little like Poirot gathering the suspects in the library for the final revelations at the end of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

Sean Mathias’s production seems sturdy rather than inspired, and McKellen is hardly called upon to stretch himself in this fitfully entertaining but far from profound play, as he mixes whimsically with menace, and stern judgements with soft-hearted sentimentality.

There is strong support from Michael Pennington as a decent doctor who finds himself trapped in McKellen’s service, and who loathes the crooks he has to tend to, and exceptionally promising work from newcomer Gavin Fowler as an anguished youth who wants to kill his father.

But despite a few strong moments The Syndicate proves a disappointingly soft-centred and only intermittently gripping play, and this lavish production seems both an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of McKellen’s formidable talent.

The London Evening Standard, 3rd August 2011, Henry Hitching

The Syndicate is worth seeing for an immense central performance by Sir Ian McKellen, who brings intelligence, gravity and a weary drollness to his role as the Neapolitan gangland kingpin Don Antonio.

From the moment he first appears, shadow-boxing breathlessly, to his final oration at a macabre last supper he is compellingly watchable.

The play, which dates from 1961, is by Eduardo De Filippo - not a well-known figure here, though fêted in his native Italy. This is its British premiere, in a fresh version by Mike Poulton.

It affords a tragicomic vision of the sickly life of crime-infested Naples, in which greed and petty rivalries are intertwined with darker designs.

Don Antonio is an intriguing creation, a man of conscience who is capable of violence. In McKellen’s hands he has a faded majesty. He’s guilty of vanity, typified by his monogrammed slippers and exaggerated reaction to observing himself in the mirror.

Yet he’s self-aware and charged with a strong sense of political and philosophical mission.

While he can be snarling and tyrannical, he’s also sensitive and ruminative.

But a vein of ruthlessness runs through his action, even when he is piously resolving other family disputes and financial misadventures.

We see this in his relationship with Fabio (a potent Michael Pennington), a passionate man who has served as his doctor for 35 years. Fabio complains of being his “hostage”, trapped in undignified servitude by duty and fear.

Don Antonio is adept at manipulating both associates and adversaries. He says he is “the man with the answers”, and McKellen cogently conveys this Solomonic authority. A scene in which he fobs off a usurer with invisible banknotes suggests almost magical powers; the beneficiary hails him as a saint, as if transported by religious ecstasy.

Seam Mathias’s production is slickly achieved.

Some of the supporting performances seem overemphatic, and Cherie Lunghi is rather wasted in the smallish role of Antonio’s wife. But the company generates an atmosphere of real emotional density, in which all characters have areas of vulnerability.

The play itself creates a buzzing menace. But this fizzles out; its optimism rings hollow, and the plotting is a little chunky. It works best as a study of a complex character, and McKellen ensures that this is realised stunningly.

London audiences deserve to see it, so let’s hope a West End transfer will be forthcoming.

Financial Times, 3rd August 2011, Ian Shuttleworth

Sir Ian McKellen may make a plausible Marvel supervillain (as Magneto in the X-Men movies), but one wouldn’t necessarily think of him as a Neapolitan underworld godfather. In fact, partly thanks to Mike Poulton’s wryly flat translation of Eduardo de Filippo’s 1960 play, he works a treat as Don Antonio, the respected and feared enforcer of what one call “community standards” in his part of the city.

Sir Ian bluntly, matter-of-factly delivers lines such as, “You want to shoot somebody, you come to me first”. With his mild Lancastrian accent and that face subsiding in riper years into a cross between Harold Macmillan and Sid James, it is as if a northern industrialist from one of J B Priestley’s plays ran the Cosa Nostra instead of the Chamber of Commerce.

De Filippo mixed comedy and tragedy as seemed to him most authentic for a given story. Here, then, when young Rafiluccio tells the Don that he intends to kill his own father, Gavin Fowler’s Latinate passion is both matched and subverted by the comical determination of Annie Hemingway as his pregnant fiancée. The two modes are most thoroughly commingled in the Don’s treatment of a too-greedy money lender and in his relationship with his doctor of 35 years.

The latter, in Michael Pennington’s performance, has been made a nervous wreck by dwelling too close for too long to this alternative value system in which “right” has little to do with truth and still less with law. And yet, when it comes to the third-act crunch, it is the Don who is prepared to make a big sacrifice to keep the community (comparatively) peaceful, and the doctor whose righteousness threatens to set it ablaze.

Sean Mathias’s production also boasts Cherie Lunghi as the wife who knows which side here bread is buttered and who wields the butter-knife, and Oliver Cotton as Rafiluccio’s stupidly pompous father. Mathias overdoes matters slightly by setting a climatic dinner on a revolving stage set to minor-key music, but all in all this is proof that de Filippo is worthy of more attention than the British theatre has paid him.