“The Syndicate” at Chichester

This is a wonderful show, and Dominic Maxwell in The Times gets it more right, I think, than Michael Billington in the Guardian. But I would briefly add…

I wanted mostly to add that this show does not belong to Ian McKellen’s richly involving central performance. Everyone in this cast is given big moments, but it is their smaller continuing ones which make the whole enterprise so exhilerating. I chatted to Annie Hemingway’s parents after the first act and very nearly commiserated them for having to watch their daughter do a perfectly adequate but inert pregnant frump. Thank goodness, I kept quiet and was rewarded by Ms Hemingway’s runaway second act: her Rita very nearly got the mid-show-applause a non-press night audience might well have given it.

By the way: Rita is a working class Neapolitan equivalent of Hester Collyer’s middle class Londoner in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Both have discovered what it is to be possessed by their love of a man. Of course, Rita has the advantage of being loved in return, which makes a difference.

The Eduardo de Filippo/Mike Poulton piece is in large measure about love (and Don Antonio is surrounded by it). But it is also about whether public and the private: the pastry shop owner has it in for Antonio for a transgression into his family life.

It is also about the age-old moral dilemma of the strong-man and society. Was Caesar worth the trouble?  Can the Prince really follow Machiavelli’s advice? And of course, was Tony Soprano capable of being thought good?

It is worth invoking Soprano. That TV show was built on a fantastical proposition: a Mafia boss might discover sensitivity. The Syndicate wonders what would happen if a Mafia boss really was a benign despot within his bit of actual and social territory.

Most critics have said of the play that the last act is a bit over the top without quite packing punch. But that response may flow from a misunderstanding of the play’s tone. It is a piece of myth or even pantomime, not realism. It is a fantasy. That accounts for the charm of the Mafia boss and for the charm of the central thesis.

So the point of the thing is that this is what high culture can do when Disney meets the Sopranos. See it like that, and one might even like the last act. To nail this (and this is a spoiler remark): can a bad man really be good and isn’t it more likely that a good man – horrified by the real awfulness of the herd – might descend to the kind of wickedness that hoi ploi understand?

I am very glad I saw this new version by Mike Poulton. I would go to some lengths to see anything he’d done.


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Publication date

04 August 2011


On theatre