Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 23rd August, 2011
Eduardo de Filippo’s play from 1960 is presented in a new version by Mike Poulton, he of several successful adaptations for the RSC (Canterbury Tales, Morte d’Arthur) but here the tone is vastly different. This is a drawing-room comedy with a twist. The house belongs to Mafioso boss, Ian McKellan, a sentimental old cove who administers his own brand of summary justice to the people who come to him with petty grievances. Imagine Judge Judy with a handgun.
The central performance is what holds the piece together. McKellan’s Don Antonio is a multi-faceted but not complex figure with his own sense of morality. He rules his district of Naples with only the occasional hint of menace. He rarely has to put his foot down. Always a thrill to see Gandalf the Grey aka Magneto treading the boards, and I have had the pleasure of seeing his King Lear and his Estragon in Waiting For Godot. This role, alas, does not rank with those two. The acting style, falling short of full on ‘Allo ‘Allo! silliness, results in very English characters who occasionally, when moved, adopt a more Italian inflection and Italian hand gestures. Mercifully, no one says “Mamma mia!”
The fault is in the source material. The main action takes a long time to get going. There are pacing issues in the first and third acts. There are too many extraneous characters going nowhere. The elegant Cherie Lunghi is criminally underused as Don Antonio’s wife. She is merely a cipher to reinforce his power. It was good to see Oliver Cotton as the dignified baker, standing up to McKellan. Their scene in the second act is the tour de force of the evening.
Don Antonio keeps returning to the idea that a man is not a man unless he rights his mistakes. A mortal wound forces him to put this maxim into practice. Slowly bleeding to death, he sets up a dinner party, manipulating the outcome of events so that his district will be able to return to a more conventional morality and code of conduct. Only at the last moment it all looks set to be derailed. Don Antonio’s personal physician and “friend” of 35 years, threatens to scupper this utopian ideal by assuming Don Antonio’s place and inciting a vendetta that will destroy everyone in a bloodbath. De Filippo ends the play at this moment: will the Doctor make his move? Will someone shoot him before he can? Will Don Antonio’s last wish be enacted? That is the most engaging and interesting moment in the whole piece. A pity we had to wade through two and a half hours to get to it.
The play felt like Chekhov but without the bleakness to embitter the humour. I remained ambivalent towards the protagonist, even after his back story was revealed. He needed to be more overtly evil earlier on to make his volte face the more effective. There is no sense of urgency as time and blood run out. The large cast needs culling – too many add nothing to the plot. Pity the actor who appears at the start but then has to wait around for the curtain call.