The Syndicate, Chichester, Minerva Theatre, August 2011

A stylish 1960s Neapolitan Godfather who only bribes or uses force when “it’s in a good cause”, Don Antonio is still forceful at age 75, compelling immense obedience and respect. When asked to adjudicate things, he listens but he’s the one who poses the questions and persuades the two parties to a just solution.

Gavin Fowler centre, all photos Manuel Harlan

Ian McKellen

The author, Eduardo de Filippo (1900–84) was a son of Naples and a National Treasure, a celebrated playwright, and a brilliant actor famous for his pauses and light gestures. With such a remarkable actor behind the original creation, playing the main role in this drama must be a challenge, but Ian McKellen rose to it superbly. His portrayal was wonderfully sympathetic, his timing perfect.

Michael Pennington

Events start with barking dogs and noises off, after which Michael Pennington, as Don Antonio’s doctor and right hand man, appears to be the principal character, dealing efficiently with the ugly kerfuffle of a wounded man. Yet as Don Antonio enters it becomes clear who is in charge, and only at the end does Pennington take centre stage again. He was entirely convincing throughout, well aided by the other cast members who all owe allegiance to Don Antonio. Well, almost all, because one man decides to reject his well meant advice. This was Arturo, a friend from way back, well played by Oliver Cotton, showing initial strength that soon turns to narcissistic weakness and fear. Gavin Fowler gave a fine portrayal as his estranged son Rafiluccio, and Annie Hemingway showed utter plainness and emotional anguish as the son’s pregnant ‘woman’. By contrast, Cherie Lunghi as Don Antonio’s wife was pretty, charming and beautifully controlled.

The entire cast worked together in a way that allowed this drama to show what its author surely intended — a slice of life. The family is central to everything, and when Don Antonio’s attempt to reconcile father and son fails he decides to take matters into his own hands. The result is unexpected, and suddenly the play shows up the dissimulation of weak minds, who simply say what they think they’re supposed to.

As a playwright, Eduardo de Filippo insisted that the simplest means of production could produce the most impact, and is quoted as saying ‘Six meters of front stage, no more. I staged everything I wished in a few square metres like these’. This production by Sean Mathias in a new English version by Mike Poulton adheres admirably to this dictum. It’s simple and theatrically very effective — catch it now in its first performances with this wonderful cast.

Production images will be put up later, when available.

Performances at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester continue until August 20 — for details click here. It then goes on tour to: Malvern Festival Theatre, Aug 23–27; Cambridge Arts Theatre, Aug 29–Sept 3; Theatre Royal Bath, Sept 5–10; Milton Keynes Theatre, Sept 12–17.

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