Mirren to outstrip Kidman's appeal

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EAT YOUR heart out, Nicole Kidman. Two people in their early fifties are about to oust you as the biggest sex symbolon the London stage, and the hottest ticket in town.

Helen Mirren, 53, and Alan Rickman, 52, star in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which has its opening night at the National Theatre onTuesday, and they have already created a stir at the box office that the National has not seen for more than two decades.

The dream team has made the play the first to sell out its entire run before opening night since the National Theatre moved to its present building in the mid-Seventies. And there may be other records made in this production.

Helen Mirren is expected, unusually, to play Cleopatra in the nude in part of the final scene of the play, the Egyptian queen's death scene.

A National Theatre source said yesterday: "In the first few previews Helen was only partially naked. But in the last few performances Helen completely unwrapped in the last scene. We don't know why she made the change. But we suspect this is how it will remain."

But the National's box office has found that Rickman has created as much frenzy as Mirren. One theatre official said: "You wouldn't believe the number of woman we have had asking to sit in the front three rows of the stalls."

Alan Rickman was not even in the production when Sean Mathias, the director, first cast it. Alan Bates was to play opposite Mirren, but he injured his knee and had to pull out of the production.

A National Theatre spokeswoman said yesterday: "We discovered that Alan Rickman was keen to play Antony for the first time. Talk about a silver lining."

All 54 performances of the production in the 1,100-seat Olivier Theatre are sold out. This is the first time that has happened before opening night since the National moved from the Old Vic in the Seventies.

West End producers have already made inquiries about transferring the production next year. With the dream team, there would have no difficulty in selling out. However, it is uncertain whether Helen Mirren's television and film commitments will allow this.

So the black market in tickets for the National Theatre is likely to be intense.