The Royal National Theatre production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, opens tonight and is already sold out for the entirety of its run to 3 December 1998. Rumours are already rife that the production may follow Oklahoma!, its predecessor in the RNT's Olivier Theatre, into the West End after it finishes at the National. Oklahoma! finished its RNT run 3 October and will open, care of producer Cameron Mackintosh, at the Lyceum Theatre for a six-month engagement from January 1999.

Even before the start of previews last Monday, 12 October, the lure of the two seasoned film stars had achieved a sell-out for Antony and Cleopatra's seven-week run. Both stars are also stage veterans but have rarely appeared in the theatre in recent years. It will be Mirren's first time on stage since 1994, though it is her third time as Cleopatra. She first played the ill-fated Queen of Egypt at the Old Vic when she was only 20 and repeated it, opposite Michael Gambon, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983. Both Rickman and Mirren will be making their National débuts in the production.

One of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies and one of history's greatest love stories, Antony and Cleopatra spans the entire Mediterranean world - the epic scale of the political events the two main characters are caught up in contrasting with the intimacy of their passion. The play has only been staged once before at the National (by Peter Hall in 1987).

Mirren is a renowned classical actress, having played many leading Shakespearean roles for the RSC. Her film work includes The Madness of King George for which she won a Palme D'Or Award and a 1994 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Mosquito Coast, The Long Good Friday and the forthcoming The Passion of Ayn Rand and The Killing of Mrs Tingle. She is best known to television audiences for her character D.C.I. Jane Tennison in five Prime Suspect dramas for which she has won four BAFTA Best Actress Awards and an Emmy Best Actress Award.

Rickman also has a firm classical grounding, with leading RSC roles including Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (also in the West End and on Broadway) for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. His extensive theatre work also includes Hamlet (Riverside Studios / national tour), Tango at the End of Winter (Edinburgh Festival / West End), The Devil is an Ass and Measure for Measure (Birmingham Rep) and The Lucky Chance, The Grass Widow and The Seagull (Royal Court). International film credits include Die Hard, Truly, Madly, Deeply, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Bob Roberts, An Awfully Big Adventure, Sense and Sensibility, Michael Collins and the forthcoming Judas Kiss, Dark Harbour and Dogma.

Rickman and Mirren are joined by Finbar Lynch (Enobarbus), Raad Rawi (Lepidus) and Samuel West (Octavius Caesar). Lynch has also worked extensively for the RSC and was most recently seen at the National as Canary Jim in Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales and as Edmund in King Lear. Samuel West returns to the National where he was last seen in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

Director Sean Mathias' recent work for the National includes Les Parents Terribles (also on Broadway as Indiscretions) for which he won the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Awards for Best Director, Uncle Vanya, A Little Night Music and Bent. His other directorial work includes Marlene in the West End.

Set design for Antony and Cleopatra is by Tim Hatley with costumes by David Belugou, lighting by Mark Henderson, music by James Wood, movement by Wayne McGregor and sound by Paul Groothuis.

In other RNT news, plans are progressing to launch a new repertory company at the National. The company would comprise a small group of actors contracted to a series of productions at the theatre over the course of a year. The company is due to be launched in the new year with a production of Philip Ridley's Sparkleshark. Further details and a formal announcement are expected over the next few weeks.