By Annette Hinkle
“Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s most famous play, is a tragedy that has it all…even by today’s standards. There are ghosts, murders, lust, revenge, a probable suicide and, at its core a family feud within the Danish royal family that rivals anything reality TV has to offer — all set against the backdrop of Denmark’s Elsinore Castle.
That’s a lot of angst to digest…. so just imagine the conversations that are taking place these days around the dinner table at Morgan and Tristan Vaughan’s house in East Hampton.
The Vaughans are not only married, they are also classically trained Shakespearean actors. Both studied at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but they didn’t meet until later, while they both were pursuing MFA degrees from The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at The George Washington University.
The Vaughans are also co-founders of the Round Table Theatre Company & Academy, an East End based non-profit dedicated to the education, promotion and presentation of works by classic playwrights (like the Bard). Offering classes to actors and non-actors alike is part of their mission, but so is producing plays, and tonight, the company’s production of “Hamlet” opens at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall for a three-week run with Ms. Vaughan directing.
And who will be playing Hamlet, himself? Mr. Vaughan, of course.
Aye, there’s the rub.
“Some couples argue about money, we argue about Shakespeare,” laughs Mr. Vaughan.
Actually, while Hamlet’s family may be angst ridden and openly hostile to one another, the Vaughans, conversely, have largely figured out how to work well and happily in the theater together.
“This is the first time I’ve directed Tristan in a production,” says Ms. Vaughan. “We met at grad school, but did not start dating until the end of school. For that reason, I think we have a good understanding of each others’ failings and challenges and the good parts of our acting.”
“Hamlet” will be Round Table’s second production on the East End. Back in early 2013, the company performed “Macbeth” at LTV studios in Wainscott. That time, Mr. Vaughan was the director and Ms. Vaughan acted in the title role of Lady Macbeth.
“He directed me in ‘Macbeth’ so he knows my bad actor habits,” admits Ms. Vaughan. “That said, we live together. After rehearsal I want to get home and not think about it, and he’s like, ‘What do you think of this?’”
“It was the opposite in Macbeth,” smiles Mr. Vaughan.
Chalk it up to the stress of directing since ultimately, it’s the director’s job to make it all work seamlessly. One of the biggest challenges with Shakespeare is presenting the material in a way that makes it assessable to all, yet keeping it true to the original intent of the words.
At times, that can be a difficult line to walk and since accessibility is a key part of Round Table’s mission, it’s a task Ms. Vaughan takes seriously. There have been plenty of kitschy Hamlets over the years, set in times and places far removed from the original setting. For this production, Ms. Vaughan wanted a modern setting. While her husband felt that modern was fine, he pressed her to narrow it down to a somewhat specific time frame.
“I had to persuade him in certain ways — he’s the artistic director — so we met in the middle,” says Ms. Vaughan.
The result is a “Hamlet” that takes place in the early 20th century, sometime between WWI and WWII.
“I will say, I kept it in Denmark and Hamlet is the prince,” says Ms. Vaughan. “If you change the stakes and Hamlet is just some screwed up kid, it loses the impact. It has to be that he’s going to be the king and all the power that comes with it.”
“We have updated it in terms of dress but it’s timeless in terms of emotions and what we can identify with,” adds Ms. Vaughan who also decided to make quite a few cuts to the script, specifically removing those political references from Shakespeare’s day that are entirely irrelevant or incomprehensible to today’s audiences.
“We also cut out the stuff between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hamlet about theater of the 1600s,” she adds. “Nobody knows what that means and I don’t want anyone to feel stupid. I don’t want people to leave saying, ‘I don’t get it.’”
“Being a teacher at heart, you have to reach across to bring people up,” adds Mr. Vaughan.
“If people don’t understand it when they leave, it’s our fault,” counters Ms. Vaughan. “As a director, I have to say, ‘Is this comprehensible?’ It’s not contemporary language, but it’s our job to make it understood.”
Teamwork is also vital. For Ms. Vaughan, directing is not about imposing her singular vision, but rather creating it collaboratively by calling on the talents and instincts of the actors around her.
“Actors need to feel comfortable with where they are in a space and how they’re progressing,” says Ms. Vaughan. “I’m not a director who says, ‘This is the way it should be.’ They’re the character. With all the actors, I’d say, ‘How was that?’”
“That’s how I direct,” agrees Mr. Vaughan. “Macbeth was hard — there was so much to do. This time, I’m really happy to have someone I trust so much directing. It takes a huge weight off me.”
And in the end, for the Vaughans it all comes down to Shakespeare’s words.
“Because we had the same training, ultimately it comes back to the text,” adds Ms. Vaughan. “If you can support it by the text, we know that it’s right and agree with that.”
Now that’s the way to make a marriage — and a theater company — work.
Round Table Theatre Company’s production of “Hamlet” is presented in partnership with Guild Hall. The play runs Friday, November 7 through Sunday, November 23 in the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. The cast includes Jeff Keogh, Tristan Vaughan, Josh Gladstone, John Tramontana, Dianne Benson, Peter Connolly, Sawyer Avery, Evan Daves, Michael Bartoli and Fabrienne Bottero. Set design is by Brian Leaver with costumes by Yuka Silvera and lighting by Sebastian Paczynski. Tickets are $25/$23 for adults and $15 for students. For tickets, call (631) 324-0806, visit guildhall.org or theatermania.com, or call 1-866-811-4111.