Heart-throb Ralph Fiennes takes on the ultimate actor's challenge of Hamlet, promising tinseltown glitz for a grey part of town, says Genevieve Fox
Hackney on a grim, grey February morning. Rubbish and dust are swirling underfoot. Some of the shop fronts look as if they haven't seen a lick of paint, or a customer, for 30 years. Hackney, poorest borough in London.

Tonight, all that is going to change. Tonight, Hollywood comes to Hackney as Ralph Fiennes arrives for the first night of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire.

Quite how he is going to arrive no one is sure. Wearing shades, perhaps? Weaving his way through Hackney's narrow streets in a stretch limo, past the building work and the municipal toilets to the stage door? Naturally the paparazzi will be muscling in to get shots of those luvvies who have ventured out of the West End spotlight and into the East End twilight to be part of the Ralph experience. But also, unheard-of for Hamlet, screaming fans and burly bouncers will arrive in his wake.

For last year Ralph Fiennes became the sexiest man in the world. Quite an achievement for an upper-class thesp turned screen idol who only made his television debut in 1991, in Prime Suspect, as a bereaved boyfriend. Not bad for somebody hailed as Mr Romantic but who, in his own estimation, failed to pull off that indefatigable romantic, Romeo, in Declan Donnellan's production of 1986, or whose unconvincing and posturing portrait of a moody, mean Heathcliff failed to salvage a pitiful film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Hackney has never seen anything like it. Alternative comedy is the Empire's usual bill of fare. And they are very excited.

"Having Ralph Fiennes at the Empire is without doubt our most prestigious coup," says Mick Gosling, Hackney Council's press officer. He has high hopes for the Ralph phenomenon and talks in the same breath about the social and economic regeneration of the area. Ralph the miracle worker. "It is very good news," says Mr Gosling.

"We don't usually get stuff like that round here," said one young mother, pleased by the opportunity to try something new. The poor old, off-off- West End Empire itself wasn't deemed capable of handling ticket sales, so the Applause agency was roped in instead. Based in Covent Garden, it is all Eighties glass on the outside and plush pink and grey on the inside, presumably to cushion the shock for Japanese and American tourists of darkest Hackney and the Empire's shabby Victorian exterior.

Booking a ticket is like making a plane reservation for a fancy airline. You have to wait to be seated, and then you pull up a chair to talk to the Hamlet ticket booker and then fork out up to £17.50, quite steep if you're used to paying £3 for a night of alternative comedy. Tickets are all but sold out. On 9 February, Time Out had a special offer and sold 250 tickets in 45 minutes. Women have been ringing and booking tickets in desperation: "I don't care where I sit as long as I see Mr Fiennes," one fan told Applause.

There can be no doubt that a dose of Shakespeare is the last thing on many people's minds. Discerning teenagers are going just to see him. Schools have made group bookings and young female fans have block-booked the front row. But it's Ralph they're interested in, not Hamlet. And they'd pronounce his name "Rafe", of course, respecting his preference for what he says is the correct Old English pronunciation.

Nobody knows what kind of Hamlet Ralph has in store. Although he has been plugging his new movie, Quiz Show, which opens next week, he is giving no interviews about the Hamlet production. Security has been so tight that even the most dedicated fans failed to uncover the location for rehearsals.

Not that they haven't tried. "We have had numerous phone calls from people pretending to be friends or agents in order to get the phone number of the rehearsal rooms," says Yad Luthra, press officer for the Almeida Theatre, which is putting on the production. "But we have been very strict on security, acting as a buffer zone. We think we will have a problem with all the fans mobbing the theatre."

I managed to track down the rehearsals to St George's Church Theatre in north London. But there was no chance of clapping eyes on Ralph. "We haven't been allowed into any rehearsals, which is unusual," says George Murcell, artistic director of St George's. "There has been a security clampdown. They were obviously worried that people may have bamboozled us at the door in order to get through to the rehearsals. They want complete privacy."

So what is Ralph's secret? Playing a tortured soul burdened with an uneasy mixture of good and evil, often with a strong leaning towards the evil, has a lot to do with it. And, key to a girl's heart, there is often a nice guy fighting to break out. That's the Heathcliff appeal. And when the nice-guy factor fails, there is always the sex appeal, on which 32- year-old Ralph is flying high.

"Last chance to swoon at Fiennes in the flesh before he disappears in the pre-Oscar whirl," urged Cosmopolitan in January. "The first contemporary actor to become a sex symbol," drooled the Standard after Fiennes won a Bafta award and Oscar nomination for Schindler's List. "A deceptively sly lady-killer," said Steven Spielberg, who spotted him in Wuthering Heights, fattened him up and shot him to fame as the irresistible Nazi in Schindler's List.

Sylvia Plath may have written that every woman loves a fascist, but many females in the audience of Schindler's List nevertheless balked at themselves for fancying a celluloid Nazi. It's those eyes. Translucent. And those dark, imposing eyebrows. "Look into his eyes," writes Holly Millea in Premiere. "Marbled grey, teal, gold and ringed in deepest blue."

"He can be evil, or romantic with a big `r'," says a 30-year-old fan. "It's his curious voice, with that distinctive catch in it. And it's the glint in his eye."

There's no doubt that the man is a looker. What no one can get over is the fact that he can act, too. And what adds fuel to the fans' flame is that Ralph responds to all the praise with endearing modesty. He is reputedly unpretentious, funny, shy, sincere. His English agent - his real agent - says he is "a very private person". A fellow actor in Hamlet talks of his "quiet charisma". Oh! the adjectives. When will they end?

By all accounts, Ralph is a little embarrassed to have shot to "himbo" status. "Sometimes I'm hyped as a sex symbol, but that doesn't mean I'm sexy," he replied when told he was the first contemporary actor to become a sex symbol. Following in the footsteps of England's finest actors - Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney, John Gielgud - playing the Dane is presumably intended to shake off all this glitz and hype and get himself back in the serious actor stakes. The fact that he is taking up a more recent and ill-fated tradition of brainless Hollywood heart-throbs turned Hamlets - Daniel Day-Lewis nearly had a nervous breakdown playing the philosophising prince, and Keanu Reeves' attempt in Canada was a flop - doesn't seem to worry Ralph.

Whether he is backstage pacing the boards in sympathy with his anxious prince is a well-kept secret. All we know is that he has grown his hair for the part. That he will be offering us a noble Hamlet. And that Hackney will never be the same again.