Sir Ian McKellen may make a plausible Marvel supervillain (as Magneto in the X-Men movies), but one wouldn’t necessarily think of him as a Neapolitan underworld godfather. In fact, partly thanks to Mike Poulton’s wryly flat translation of Eduardo de Filippo’s 1960 play, he works a treat as Don Antonio, the respected and feared enforcer of what one might call “community standards” in his part of the city.
Sir Ian bluntly, matter-of-factly delivers lines such as, “You want to shoot somebody, you come to me first”. With his mild Lancastrian accent and that face subsiding in riper years into a cross between Harold Macmillan and Sid James, it is as if a northern industrialist from one of JB Priestley’s plays ran the Cosa Nostra instead of the Chambers of Commerce.
De Filippo mixed comedy and tragedy as seemed to him most authentic for a given story. Here, then, when young Rafiluccio tells the Don that he intends to kill his own father, Gavin Fowler’s Latinate passion is both matched and subverted by the comical determination of Annie Hemingway as his pregnant fiancée. The two modes are most thoroughly commingled in the Don’s treatment of a too-greedy moneylender and in his relationship with his doctor of 35 years.
The latter, in Michael Pennington’s performance, has been made a nervous wreck by dwelling too close for too long to this alternative value system in which “right” has little to do with truth and still less with law. And yet, when it comes to the third-act crunch, it is the Don who is prepared to make a big sacrifice to keep the community (comparatively) peaceful, and the doctor whose righteousness threatens to set it ablaze.
Sean Mathias’s production also boasts Cherie Lunghi as the wife who knows which side her bread is buttered and who wields the butter-knife, and Oliver Cotton as Rafiluccio’s stupidly pompous father. Mathias overdoes matters slightly by setting a climactic dinner on a revolving stage set to minor-key music, but all in all this is proof that de Filippo is worthy of more attention than the British theatre has paid him.