“Who’s there?” is not the most famous line in Hamlet, but it’s the very first line, spoken by the character Bernardo. There’s been plenty of words, words, words about Hamlet himself over the years, but less of an examination of where Bernardo is coming from. For starters, how does he manage to stay awake during night duty at the castle?
My point is, there’s a dearth of Bernardo in Shakespeare studies. There also could be more about the challenges of playing him. So, I emailed some questions to actor Monty Joyce, who plays Bernardo in the current, riveting production of Hamlet by The Celebration Company at the Station Theater.
Smile Politely: You are the first actor to appear on stage in Hamlet, the person starting up the play, so to speak. Are you nervous? Exhilarated?
Monty Joyce: As the first person out on stage in one of the best plays of all time at a theater with such a long, storied history, I feel the burden of responsibility on me. To lighten that burden, I carry a working flashlight. I — Monty — feel excited. Bernardo, however, is cold, bone-tired, and a bit miffed that he has to stand guard outside in the middle of the Scandinavian night and make himself prey for a revengeful ghost. But he’s got a job to do and he does it.
Monty Joyce (center) as Bernardo, with working flashlight.
SP: You have a good on-stage rapport with Marcellus, your fellow guard. Did you and actor Nathon Jones do any kind of male bonding stuff to get into character during rehearsals? Maybe watch old Lethal Weapon movies together and drink beer?
Joyce: Aside from the normal Station Theater ritual of giving each other foot massages before every rehearsal, we didn’t do anything special to bond. The close confines of the Station dressing rooms are enough to engender a feeling of physical camaraderie. It helps that Nate and I have so much time off stage because that gives us an opportunity to sit around the theater reading and playing on cell phones and staring blankly. All that downtime made us feel like real security guards.
SP: While you’re on stage quite a bit, you’re not often the focus of attention. Is it ever tempting just to let yourself fall out of character and watch what Hamlet, Claudius, etc. are doing?
Joyce: While I’m on stage, I’m rarely tempted to fall out of character because Monty’s desire and Bernardo’s job are the same: to watch and listen carefully to everyone else. I admit that at Ophelia’s funeral — hope that’s not too much of a spoiler (she dies after a losing, but entertaining, battle with madness) — the language and the music are so affecting and the grief so powerfully expressed that Monty’s eyes always want to start welling up — but Bernardo has a duty to uphold, so those eyes stay dry and focused.
SP: What’s the biggest misconception the world has about Bernardo?
Joyce: A common misconception about Bernardo is that he’s a Latino or an Italian. In fact, he’s pure Danish on both sides. His mother’s favorite movie was West Side Story and she had a big crush on George Chakiris. That’s how he got his name. Another misconception is that because he carries a gun and wears a badge he’s some sort of hardened ruffian. Not true. He’s a flower lover, a bird fancier, and an accomplished pastry maker. He also volunteers several hours per week bringing food and comfort to any number of the many prisoners languishing in the king’s dungeons.
SP: You’ve got a very physical roll — you’re moving quickly around the stage, going up and down battlements, etc. Especially on the small stage of the Station Theater, it looks a little dangerous. Are you ever worried about tripping or having some other type of accident?
Joyce: I love this set. It’s so spare and spooky. It’s true that walking up and down those tall battlements can give my legs quite the workout. If I were to do it more than a few times they would be veal. You know, murder on the calves! No, but seriously, I’m not worried about tripping. A successful acting performance necessitates that you do two things: say your lines and don’t bump into the scenery. If I can’t do that then I deserve any bruised shins that result from my clumsiness.
SP: What did playing Bernardo teach you about acting?
Joyce: Playing Bernardo taught me that sometimes your job as an actor is just to stand there and look good, or good and cold and scared, and it’s not always easy.
SP: Although you’re the first responder when Gertrude starts to die, for much of the carnage at the end of the play, you’re basically standing around watching. While doing so, do you ever start to blame any one character for things going so bad? If so, who?
Joyce: Whoa! Whoa! “Standing around?!!” When I left the room to fetch medical help for the queen everybody was alive and on their feet. I come back a few minutes later and Laertes, Queen Gertrude, and King Claudius are all lying on the floor dead and Hamlet is seconds away from breathing oxygen for the last time. Good Marcellus is my man and I don’t want to cast aspersions on him, nor on Horatio and those two attendants (who may or may not be eunuchs; you never know with those fancy lad courtiers). Anyway I wasn’t actually there so, as terrible as I feel about the whole thing, I can’t be held to blame. It’s a tragedy, so let’s blame hubris and hamartia.
SP: Anything else you want to say about being Bernardo?
Joyce: The best thing ever said about being any of the supporting characters in Hamlet was written by T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
So if you come see Hamlet, I vow to you that none of the stars spread across the stage will be anything like patients etherized on a table — except for Katie Baldwin as the dead Ophelia during her funeral scene.