Troilus and Cressida at the National - Olivier

It s typical; you wait years for a production of Troilus and Cressida and three turn up at once. But the RNT's go at the text is the best, far outstripping the previous Regent s Park and RSC productions.

Be warned, it s a long evening but time well spent. By resisting the temptation to cut the text, director Trevor Nunn emphasises how insignificant the relationship between Troilus and Cressida is in the context of a drawn-out and debilitating war. What s more, he demonstrates that the conflict isn t just between two sets of warriors, the noble Trojans and the devious Greeks. Instead, individuals are clearly delineated so that one can see how, ultimately, both armies are doomed. Right from the start, in the long exposition scene where Pandarus describes each of the Trojan warriors to Cressida , Nunn works his magic. The soldiers don t merely pass by, they kneel before the audience - within those few seconds, we glimpse their true characters. Equally, the opening scene within the Grecian tents, dominated by Ulysses long speech on the importance of order, sets the standard for what follows.

Against this background, the two title characters could struggle, but Peter de Jersey s Troilus and Sophie Okenedo s astonishingly impressive Cressida captivate. The Cressida who emerges in this production is a truly tragic heroine - neither an arch schemer nor a wilful flirt. Rather, Okenedo s performance conveys a confused young woman who, having lost her first lover, finds herself surrounded by lascivious men. She participates in Troilus and Pandarus s final meeting, only to be shunned by her erstwhile lover and abandoned by her mortally sick uncle. The final image of her alone on stage is unforgettable.

Troilus and Cressida is the first in a series by the newly created NT Ensemble. The acting exhibited by the company is of such a high standard (and praise be, a cast that speak verse) that it s almost invidious to single out anyone. Having said that, Roger Allam s Ulysses simply can t be ignored. Allam portrays a flesh and blood man, a mover and shaker, part Machiavelli and part actor - this is consummate Shakespearean acting. Only David Bamber s overly mannered Pandarus disappoints. His be-fezzed appearance in the first half is a caricature of an Eastern wheeler-dealer, and by the second-half, his camply exaggerated coughing puts one in mind of Dale Winton playing La Traviata.

Troilus and Cressida is an A-level text this year, which should ensure a healthy audience. But you don t have to be sitting exams to appreciate this production - I doubt you ll see Shakespeare staged better this year. And if the other NT Ensemble productions are half as good, they ll be well worth waiting for.

Maxwell Cooter