‘IF kids were coming at you and they had things to hit you with, you would do what you had to... like pull an aerial off a car and swish it through the air to defend your self.”
Dempsey and Makepeace star Michael Brandon is recalling life as a kid in Brooklyn, New York.
The youthful 70-year-old’s trip down memory lane has been sparked by his latest role, that of Italian lawyer Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, which opens at The King’s tonight, where it runs until Saturday.
Set in the dangerous world of New York’s Brooklyn harbour in the 50s, the play tells the story of respected longshoreman Eddie Carbone, who lives with his wife and niece in a tight-knit Italian community bound by strong moral codes of justice and honour.
When Eddie and his wife welcome two cousins into their home, Marco and Rodolpho, recently arrived from Sicily and looking to settle, the balance of Eddie’s family relationships is dangerously rocked.
As the young men seek work, wealth and security, they find themselves in a threatening country shimmering with the mirage known as The American Dream.
“It takes me back because I am a Brooklyn boy. I come from there, I know that the line was drawn at the end of a block. Cross it to the other block over the street and you took your life in your hands,” says Brandon, who for the last 25 years has been married to his Dempsey And Makepeace co-star Glynis Barber.
He continues, “It was where street gangs survived. That was how you protected your environment. It was a hard life.”
Immigration explained the demarcation found in block after block, he recalls, “It was all part of the social strata, because then, basically, Italians tried to live with Italians, Irish with Irish, Jewish with Jewish. In school, the young kids ganged together in groups of familiarity. It was that kind of way until it wasn’t anymore. It made you grow up fast and hard. That was not fun.”
Playing Alfieri has brought those memories flooding back for the actor who admits he would move back in “about five seconds,” with the caveat: “Brooklyn the way it is now. I wouldn’t move back the way it was then. Now Brooklyn is the place to be.”
Consequently, in this production, Alfieri narrates the piece from a position of authority, says Brandon.
“I’ve lived in France... Italy.... I have travelled the world and that universality makes me what I am.
“Going back in this play allows me to see it as it really was. In most productions, the character just tells the story and is the backboard for Johnny to say what he has to say.
“In our production, Alfieri is a main character. He narrates, but in the tone and style of the neighbourhood.
“It was considered very unlucky to be a lawyer from where I come. He certainly wouldn’t have been that clean. I’ve seen productions where he is wearing a bow-tie and waistcoat, standing there... This guy is bent.
“He is bent because he knows about all the stuff that is going on. He knows about the illegal immigration. He knows about getting papers for them, bailing them out, because he’s dealt with longshoremen all his life.
“He came from the same place as them, he came from Italy, he became a citizen of America, got an education. Now he is making his own life.”
At a time when immigration continues to make headlines, Brandon insists the play is as relevant today as when it premiered in 1955.
“It transcends time. We are still dealing with the same issues today; people trying to get a better life.
“The difference is perhaps, that in those days people came to make a better life, to support their families back home and to create a better world.
“I think now, because of countries that have benefits, people come to get a better world, not to make it. There’s a difference.
“If there was more coming to make a better world, to come and learn to be citizens of that country...
“That’s what you do, you move on, not try to bring the old country with you. And that’s the problem in this play as well; the old customs say ‘this’ is honour, ‘this’ is justice. Alfieri is the bridge.
“He has the view from the bridge, and says, ‘There is only one justice. All the law is in a book. There is no other.’ It’s the old world versus the new world.”
In each venue, Brandon and the cast are joined on stage by locals, who appear alongside the professionals.
“Every venue we bring local actors into the play to allow them to see how a professional production works, to be part of it, to be in it. It’s a great thing.”
Does that keep Brandon and his co-stars on their toes?
He laughs, “It keeps them on their toes. If they screw up we just carry on. All of a sudden, you find somebody standing in the kitchen who’s not supposed to be there and you go ‘Whoa!”. But I have to say, they’ve all been very professional so far.”
A View From The Bridge, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000