Meaty stage roles for older leading actors are hard to find, especially when you’ve already given an admired Lear. So it’s easy to see why Ian McKellen would be attracted to the role of the domineering but conflicted local mafia boss in “The Syndicate.” The role, however, turns out to be better than the play, a problem underlined by the lack of darkness and tension in Sean Mathias’s production.
Italian playwright Eduardo di Flippo wrote for large companies and this, his penultimate play written in 1960 and never previously been staged in the U.K, is no exception. Associates, staff, sons, daughters, friends and foes move in and out of a gracious household in a Neapolitan town all in thrall to McKellen’s 75-year-old Don Antonio, who makes his first entrance in a lurid, boxer-style, silk dressing-gown, literally indicating his character’s punch.
Throughout the morning he dispenses highly individual, somewhat surreal justice to a succession of local figures, smugly rich and pitifully poor. Although barely able to read or write, Don Antonio has decades of street-wise “wisdom” behind him which he has used to amass a fortune and a grand manner and to keep control of his family and the town. A decade ahead of the novel of “The Godfather,” this is standard-issue home-life-of-the-mafiosi given theatrical exaggeration.
Things grow more interestingly complicated when poor young firebrand Rafiluccio (Gavin Fowler) arrives announcing he intends to shoot his father. The plot then turns twisty as Don Antonio attempts to control the outcome of the fierce stand-off between Rafiluccio and his father (highly plausible Oliver Cotton) and the situation sets off echoes from Don Antonio’s youth. Matters reach a crescendo in the final scene, which resorts to over-explanatory ways of overtly working though the play’s concerns.
Yet for the play’s meditation on personal morality vs. public justice to work, a degree of threat needs to be far more present. Easeful playing between characters emphasises the day-to-day family life and the flurry of the opening scene is well-caught, but even there, what looks like the morning preparations turn out to be emergency backstreet surgery by a dodgy doctor, the nasty ramifications of which are here played for comedy. The crucial undertow of violence is absent virtually throughout. The stakes are so low that an (off-stage) fatal stabbing comes across as extreme and unlikely rather than a typical outcome. It’s shocking in the wrong way.
Don Antonio has a hugely sentimental streak seized affectingly by McKellen, whose moments of magnetic self-absorption make you understand his warped idealism. But the role — and the play — has been shortchanged by the decision not to encourage him to show viciousness. This is a man who we watch refusing to kill the guard-dog who has so savagely bitten his wife that she has been rushed to hospital, a telling scene that is simply not given its necessary weight or resonance.
Without the danger, the play is diminished. McKellen’s presence has ensured a sell-out run at Chichester and on the subsequent short tour. But even if McKellen weren’t contracted to return to Middle-earth, the lack of dynamic range and tension would argue against this being a commercial bet.