Chichester’s star wattage shines bright with the appearance of Ian McKellen, returning to a theatre he first appeared at some 45 years ago as part of the National Theatre’s 1966 summer season, to now play a Neapolitan ‘godfather’ figure in the UK premiere of Eduardo De Filippo’s The Syndicate (presented in a new version by Mike Poulton).
When McKellen last appeared with the RSC four years ago, he played King Lear, a patriarch who surrenders his power to his three daughters. Here, he also has three adult children, but is still very much in charge as a community figurehead, fixer and problem-solver (even though it turns out that he, too, has already signed over his wealth to his offspring).
The play and its highly stylized production are like a cross between The Sopranos and Almodovar, providing a bustling portrait of lives bound together by family associations, past criminality and future threats. And just as The Sopranos showed the man beneath the monster and mobster, so De Filippo’s play provides a rich, densely-textured picture of a man’s sometimes twisted but still defiant moral code, and McKellen offers a fascinating study in his multiple contradictions. There’s a rasp in his voice but a fight in his step to the end.
Sean Mathias, who scored one of his biggest directorial successes with Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles, is once again tackling a story of dysfunctional parenting, as McKellen’s Don Antonio is called upon to mediate between a baker, Arturo Santaniello (Oliver Cotton), and the son, Rafiluccio (Gavin Fowler), that he has sought to disinherit. Mathias’ staging is a slow burner, but it has a gathering sense of heightened intensity as various showdowns erupt.
A teeming cast of 20 gives it full-blooded life, including Michael Pennington as a doctor who has been loyal to the family for the last 35 years but is now seeking his own freedom, and Cherie Lunghi as Don Antonio’s glamorous wife.