Fiennes’ ‘Hamlet’ Bows To U.K. Fanfare

The box office heat intensified last week for Ralph Fiennes’ “Hamlet” (see review, page 72), following a Feb. 28 press night that was the starriest London has seen in an age. With 85% of tickets sold before opening, the Almeida Theater production at the Hackney Empire put on sale March 1 four extra performances (through March 29) to coincide with Nicholas de Jongh’s money review in that afternoon’s Evening Standard. The next day, the box office took £ 18,000 ($28,440) – peanuts, perhaps, in Broadway terms, but impressive for a theater whose top price is only $28, and, in any case, mostly had little but $11.85 gallery seats left to sell.

Demi Moore, Emma Thompson, Ben Kingsley, Alan Bates, Harold Pinter and Diana Rigg were among those on hand to cheer on the star, with next day’s papers faithfully chronicling celebrity reaction. (“Spectacular,” the Evening Standard quoted Moore as saying, “but then I am a small-town girl, a hillbilly.”)

Also on hand were Fiennes’ CAA agent Bryan Lourd; producers Michael David (whose Dodger Prods, is bringing the production to New York next month), Roger Berlind and Robert Fox; and directors Richard Eyre, Karel Reisz and John Caird, who was heard to wonder which critics would succumb to the location and use the word “hackneyed” in their reviews (The Independent’s Paul Taylor, so far.).

The reviews were split, as is to be expected from a star performance noted for its American-style physicality and volatility as opposed to the detached, ironic, often declamatory Hamlets (Stephen Dillane, Kenneth Branagh and the like) that tend to curry favor locally. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer called Fiennes “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” with the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker saying, “He does not rise above anything one has seen before.”

The Times’ Benedict Nightingale, by contrast, said Fiennes “exercises a genuine grip (with) an intensity and unpredictability of his own,” prompting the same newspaper to opine in a rare theater-related editorial page entry that Fiennes was “a great new Hamlet in a great old tradition… a national tradition of which we can be almost as proud as of the play itself.” To the Standard’s de Jongh, Fiennes was “thrillingly original and power-packed.”

Broadway makes up its mind May 2.

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