Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

The Syndicate

An Interview with Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington

Cambridgeshire Agenda

16th August 2011

Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington take the lead roles in Eduardo de Filippo’s The Syndicate at Cambridge Arts Theatre this month. They talked to Clair Chamberlain.

The Syndicate marks a much-anticipated return to the stage for Ian McKellen, who is very much enjoying his role as Don Antonio Barracano. “Although a few Eduardo de Filippo’s plays have been done in the UK, this is the first time The Syndicate has ever been done here,” he says. “I wanted to do it because I was in another of his plays, Napoli Milionaria, at the National Theatre some time ago, and I remember Filumena and Saturday, Sunday, Monday, also at the National.”

Michael Pennington, meanwhile, who stars alongside McKellen as Dr Fabio Della Ragione, is a self-confessed de Filippo nut. “I’ve always loved his plays and it’s a mystery to me why he’s still a bit of a closed book to English audiences. We know three or four of the plays - but there are 45 of them and I’ve got my hands on several. I hope to get through a few more of them before I finish.”

For McKellen, though, it’s not just about the play itself. “The Syndicate’s a very enjoyable play to be in because it’s quite a large group of actors,” he says. “There are man old friends of mine in it  and the director’s an old colleague, Sean Mathias. That’s really what I enjoy most about acting: working with friends - and going on tour. I don’t really enjoy sitting in London in the West End eight shows a week, I’d rather be off around the country.”

And, of course, the play comes to Cambridge on the 29th August, and McKellen, who studied here, is looking forward to coming back to his roots - and celebrating an anniversary. “The Cambridge Arts is a very dear place to me. I worked there  more than 50 years ago when we undergraduates were allowed to perform in the professional theatre every so often. I’ve been back as an actor but this year it’s actually 50 years since I left Cambridge. Personally, I think it’s rather appropriate that I’m going back to my roots. I haven’t worked there as often as I would have liked over the years, but I’ve been there on and off, helping them raise funds sometimes. It’s a theatre that deserves support.”

Reviews of the Chichester shows have been overwhelmingly positive, but Tim Auld, of the Sunday Telegraph, describes McKellen as ‘such a powerful presence that the rest of the cast don’t get much of a look-in’. Pennington, though, knows that his character is vital to the audience’s understanding of the play.

“It’s very important, as in all good plays, that there’s a character who is like a spokesman for the audience and in a way interprets the play for them. So they think ‘Oh yes that’s what I would feel id I was in that position’ - there’s this kind of common ground between the audience and the character.”

Pennington’s character, Fabio, has been a loyal friend and doctor to McKellen’s ageing mafia boss for 35 years, but now he wants out of the organisation that was originally set up with high ideals to dispense unofficial justice in the city of Naples. But Don Antonio is not the sort of man you up and leave. “What keeps Fabio there is a mixture of compulsion - literally compulsion, he’s not allowed to leave - but also a deep, though weakening loyalty to Don Antonio,” says Pennington. “He’s worked with him for over 35 years on a programme which has done good for many troubled and poor people in Naples who can’t find justice or find representation through the system because the system is corrupt and operates against the interests of the poor. So Fabio and Antonio have led a kind of crusade to give these people justice and that - it’s difficult to give up.”

It doesn’t trouble to McKellen, though, that his character may be hard to like. “You might begin by thinking Don Antonio is not the sort of man you’d like to meet down a dark alley in Naples, but he’s unlike other criminal classes, in that he has a conscience - or he says he does - and that he’s trying to make the world a better place. He’s trying to stop violence rather than get involved with it.

“But it’s not up to me to tell the audience what they think. I just play the character and I think they’ll like him; they’ll find him amusing and they’ll be surprised by him and intrigued. But the morality - well it questions your own sense of morality.”

Return to The Syndicate