Don Antonio is one of the original godfathers, back in Naples in 1960. No drugs or high finance, just old-fashioned patriarchal power. The twist is Don Antonio’s conscience, a reaction to 17 years’ exile in New York City. There he learnt about gang violence. Back home in inner-city Naples he tries to clean up crime, violence and injustice. I couldn’t be happier.
Not only am I working with brilliant actors but I get to fire a bullet into the scenery which is much better than chewing it.
— Ian McKellen, August 2011
Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984), one of giants of European Theatre, wrote over 20 plays in his native Neopolitan language. He acted in them too: brilliantly, judging by the black-and- white extracts available on You Tube. For the National Theatre in 1991, I played the part he’d written for himself in Napoli Milionaria. Now, twenty years on, I’m back in another of his great roles, Don Antonio, a criminal boss in inner-city Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War.
It happily brings me back to Chichester, where I played as a youngster in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company’s 1965 summer season. The Syndicate has a sparky new translation by Mike Poulton. It will sit well on the open stage of the intimate Minerva Theatre. Sean Mathias has assembled a wonderful company of actors, some of whom are old colleagues. Michael Pennington (Don Antonio’s close associate in the administration of rough justice) was Mercutio to my Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976. Cherie Lunghi (Don Antonio’s wife) was also at Stratford that season. I am also reunited with Brendan O’Hea, after Waiting for Godot last year.
The filming of The Hobbit permits only a few months off for The Syndicate but there’s time after five weeks at the Minerva for a short tour to old haunts. Godot took me to Malvern, Bath and Milton Keynes but Cambridge is special. The Cambridge Arts was the first professional theatre I ever worked in, as an unpaid undergraduate 50 years ago.
— Ian McKellen, Wellington NZ, May 2011
Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington star in the world premiere of Mike Poulton's new version of Eduardo De Filippo's play Il Sindico Del Rione Sanità, directed by Sean Mathias.
Honest young Antonio Barracano stabs a brutal night-watchman to death. With the help of a ‘Godfather’ he is smuggled out of Naples to hide in New York. Convicted of the murder in his absence but safe overseas, he quickly acquires wealth and a reputation for ruthlessness.
Returning to Naples, he uses his new status to quash his conviction and is soon feared but respected throughout the city, making it his life’s work to provide a form of rough justice for the criminals of Naples who have no other access to law. He rules the Naples underbelly with a rod of iron but when a respectable but poor young man decides to murder his father and comes to Don Antonio for advice, the Neapolitan ‘Godfather’ emerges from the shadows to make the young man’s father an offer he can’t refuse.
The comedy grows blacker as ‘respectable’ Naples collides with its criminal underworld.