Ralph and Keanu, wimps of Denmark

First Keanu Reeves, now Ralph Fiennes - is it fatal attraction that draws Hollywood actors to the role of Hamlet? Paul Taylor watches Fiennes at the Hackney Empire; Clare Bayley considers the lure of the Great Dane
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This is certainly a high-profile week for the Hackney Empire. First it crops up in a witticism in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, when the heroine, casting aspersions on the competence of the British Raj, quips: "It beats me how we're getting away with it, darling. I wouldn't trust some of them to run the Hackney Empire." Then the eyes of the world turn on the building as the Ralph Fiennes Hamlet, surely the least publicity- starved Shakespeare production of the decade, opens on its spacious stage. Of the two, I think the Stoppard reference represents the venue's greater moment of glory.

The prospect of Hamlet in Hackney seemed wonderfully, well, unhackneyed. After all, it's not every day that Frank Matcham's splendid Victorian theatre acts as a magnet both for serious Shakespeare-fanciers and Hollywood autograph-chasers. From the screams of adulation that greeted Mr Fiennes at his opening-night curtain call, it was clear that some people had got their money's worth. But having seen and admired this actor's performance as the suave but fatally weak Wasp Charles van Doren in the movie Quiz Show, I was left reflecting on the stark difference between screen presence and stage presence.

The eyes have it (so to speak) with this actor. In close-up, those blue- grey penetrators with the pencil-point pupils subtly register the flow of conflicting thoughts and feelings, as can be seen in the excellent moment in Quiz Show when Van Doren is tempted by television bosses to collude in a fraud: perplexity, suspicion, naivet, faux-naivet and moral capitulation chase each other with microscopic delicacy across Fiennes' expression. But in the well-nigh permanent longshot of proscenium-arched theatre, this actor's eyes look so hooded that you can't get into his face, let alone his soul. The irony is that some of Fiennes' best moments in Jonathan Kent's desperately disappointing Victorian period production come when his visage is covered by a half-mask purloined from the players' props.

The breakneck pace at which Kent conducts the proceedings does the performance no favours, though it does pre-empt the blind panic that can beset you during dull and slow Hamlets. Fiennes' "To be or not to be" soliloquy is rattled out with the inwardness and rhythmic modulation of a rap record. The questing injured spirituality of this hero, which a Mark Rylance can suggest in all its agonised dialectical conflict and mental gear-shiftings, comes across here in one-mood-at-a-time mode.

A crude test for judging any Hamlet is to speculate on what subject he might have been studying at Wittenberg. It was a test I applied to the DH Lawrence lookalike who played the Great Dane in Richard Dreyfuss's recent production, deciding that, in his case, it was probably a joint honours in geography and applied sociology. Fiennes' Hamlet, by contrast, would have spent all his time being president of the dram soc and cornering the romantic leads. Sensitivity he can project in abundance, along with patrician, head-wagging disgust; you feel there is such a lack of underlying moral fibre that it wouldn't be too unfair to dub him Hamlet, Wimp of Denmark.

Tara Fitzgerald, whose russet Pre- Raphaelite tresses are like a placard announcing Watery End Ahead, is not helped as Ophelia by Fiennes' failure to give any inkling of the love that must have preceded the accusatory revulsion. It was the same when he played Troilus in Troilus and Cressida for the RSC.

There is a fine moment when filial yearning gets the better of this Hamlet's fear of the ghost and, stretching his hand forward, he puts an infinitely beseeching, broken pressure on the word "father" in the line "I'll call thee Hamlet/King, father, royal Dane". But the relationship with his mother feels external and melodramatic, the simulated rape on her bed just a routine that a modern Hamlet has to get through like some exercise in dressage.

Francesca Annis's Gertrude, though, is the most arresting thing in the production. After the closet scene, she seems to stumble into a dazed state of moral horror. Delivering the long description of Ophelia's drowning, she grips the handles of the doors through which she has half entered as if struggling to keep a grip on her own sanity. And slain by her husband's poison, she sits at a disturbing tilt, her eyes staring ahead in frozen despair.

Some of the supporting performances are more than respectable (in particular that of Peter Eyre, who both amuses and chills as a fussily unloving Polonius). But the production that makes much muddling use of high, panelled, self- opening shutters never finds an adequate way of representing in visual terms the idea of Elsinore as a spy-congested surveillance world, its rottenness radiating from the usurped throne. Above all, what is lacking is a sense of Hamlet the subversive/defensive ironist, such as was superbly communicated in Stephen Dillane's performance for Peter Hall, or in Rylance's playing of him as an alternative comedian.

Fiennes' largely romantic reading feels like a throwback, and one not in tune with the temper of the age. "I'm not a pile of fun," the actor is quoted as saying in a recent interview, and watching his Hamlet, you have no cause to disagree. It's not a case of Hamlet without the Prince; more a case of him not being in full attendance.

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