Hankering for just one more Mafia drama? For sure, you might think the movies and the small screen have done this genre to death – lock, stock and two-a-penny. Yet The Syndicate is an intriguing curiosity, written in 1960 by the continentally revered Eduardo de Filippo (of Napoli Milionaria! renown). Hitherto unstaged in the UK, it’s premiering at Chichester in a new version by Mike Poulton. Sean Mathias’s chamber production, moreover, stars Ian McKellen on top form as Don Antonio Barracano, a Neapolitan godfather with a twist.
Holding sway over local gun-toting gangsters and shopkeepers, he’s a septuagenarian honcho with a country estate outside Naples – a villa combining shabby grandeur with nouveau-riche touches (fine set design
by Angela Davies). McKellen makes his first entrance comically, air-boxing before breakfast, wheezily puffing and bobbing around in sock-suspenders and a purple-satin dressing gown with his name stitched on the back. Think Henry Cooper, but shrunken, saggy and a bit loose at the seams.
Later, in a more seriously troubled vein – and now dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit – McKellen recalls the revenge killing he executed as a young man. He managed to evade the law and, since then, has made a packet as a property developer, dishing out bank notes in brown envelopes to override such petty irritations as planning permission.
When his long-term sidekick, Michael Pennington’s frazzled Dr Fabio della Ragione, announces that he can’t hack Naples’ underworld of hushed-up shootings any longer, McKellen ripostes with quietly masked menace, saying he’ll arrange for some “friends” to meet Fabio on arrival, if he’s really determined to emigrate to America. In other words, the Don will see you’re pumped full of lead if you irk him.
Or will he? As we see him receiving a string of callers, it becomes apparent that he can be more like a fairy godfather, handing a massive cheque to an impoverished youth (Gavin Fowler) disinherited by his bourgeois father (Oliver Cotton). Essentially, Barracano is a self-appointed judge, listening to disputes and aiming to stop feuds in their tracks, having learnt from his own experiences.
The Syndicate is not a well-made play or stylistically uniform. You may wonder where it’s going narratively, with several subplots lacking developmental momentum. But the meandering can be quirkily refreshing too: not your typical, structurally engineered storylining. The dialogue includes several digressions that sound extraordinarily like slices of verbatim, real-life chat. Mathias goes for some beautifully understated naturalism as well, particularly in the opening scene where dogs bark outside as dawn breaks and the household stumbles out of bed, tousled and yawning. Shaking out a white tablecloth, as if this is all routine, they are, in fact, setting up a makeshift operating theatre.
There’s been a turf-war skirmish, and Pennington – shrugging a white coat on over his pyjamas – has to save a life. This is nearer Chekhov than the clichés of a Caporegime, though it's grisly too as the doctor yanks a bullet out of someone's thigh.
Pennington and McKellen are a splendidly lived-in, veteran duo (both actors having become far less stagey). They slide deftly between the entertaining and the alarming, and McKellen's clown-like face can harden in an instant, his hooded eyes suddenly sinister slits. There's also top calibre support from Jane Bertish, as the bustling housekeeper.
The trouble is, Mathias hasn't coaxed great performances out of his younger cast members. As a result, Poulton's translation can sound wooden, not helped by bland RP accents that seem sociologically improbable and contrary to De Filippo's celebrated love of dialect.
The last act takes a heavily stylised turn, with a slow-spinning table and ghostly, pale lighting for a farewell supper. Twists suddenly come thick and fast, almost bewilderingly so, the moral U-turns sharp. Barracano's rift-smoothing tricks end up threatened by a new purgatorial policy of bitter truths and dog-eat-dog, unleashed vendettas.
The generational breach between the king of England and Prince Hal, his supposedly ne'er-do-well son, is healed in Shakespeare's epic two-parter, Henry IV. Indeed, Peter Hall's admirable double whammy – in rep at Bath – peaks with the deathbed scene where David Yelland's testy but also poignantly agonised Henry IV finds peace at last, reconciled with Tom Mison's weeping Hal.
Mison's relationship with his alternative father-figure is, meanwhile, unsettlingly multilayered as he hangs out in the underworld taverns of Eastcheap with Desmond Barrit's big-bellied, shamelessly dissolute Falstaff. There is a deep mutual fondness there, even a glimpse of cuddly tenderness, but then ominous flashes of bruising coldness when Hal play-acts – only half in jest – the regal scorn with which he plans to reject the old sot. Mison is strikingly torn, suppressing regret even as he turns icy.
Barrit isn't the most bouncily funny Fat Knight you'll ever see, and there are weak ensemble links, including a Hotspur whose rebellious tantrums lack comic timing, and lamely choreographed civil wars. However, all in all, incisive and absorbing – played out on in a shadowy brick chamber under silver shafts of light.
Lastly, the NT has opened up its backstage Paint Room (normally reserved for set construction) as a temporary performance space for Double Feature – four new plays by rising talents, with two presented per night, in rep. This isn't a thrillingly atmospheric "found space", basically being a vast concrete bunker with rough-and-ready tiers of benches for the audience. That said, it's enjoyable, enlivened by a pre-show live band and a bar amid the paint pots. The productions, directed by Lyndsey Turner and Polly Findlay, are polished.
The paired premieres that I caught were Edgar & Annabel by Sam Holcroft and The Swan by DC Moore. The first is an over-schematic, seriocomic thriller set in an anonymous fitted kitchen in a sea of darkness. We are snooping on some young revolutionaries in what appears to be a contemporary police state. They're pretending to be a bland couple in a possibly bugged house, so they read out scripted, super-banal conversations while making Molotov cocktails. In spite of droll and intense acting from Trystan Gravelle and Kirsty Bushell, though, Edgar and Annabel would fool no one. Dull-witted nonsense.
By comparison, Moore has a brilliant ear for how people really talk. We could probably do without another run-down pub play, but the tensions brewing at a post-funeral gathering in The Swan, even if slightly soapy, are also vibrantly humorous and sensitive. Trevor Cooper plays a mouthy geezer with gusto and the extraordinarily assured young actress Pippa Bennett-Warner is a bereaved adolescent.
'The Syndicate' (01243 781312) to 20 Aug, and touring; 'Henry IV, Parts 1 and II' (01225 448844) to 13 Aug; 'Double Feature' (020-7452 3000) to 10 Sep
Kate Bassett sees Anna Christie, starring Ruth Wilson and Jude Law.