Can Greek tragedies really resonate with audiences today? Can they still have that powerful, enlightening and cathartic effect they were originally intended to have? If Carrie Cracknell and Ben Power’s new production of Medea, now playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre, is anything to go by then the answer is yes, they definitely can.

This production of Medea is one that will turn any cynic into a believer: even with a self-professed preference for new, contemporary plays myself, I can now confidently say in the wake of seeing this production that I am a convert. Ben Power’s adaptation of Euripides’s classic text is gripping, only bolstered by Helen McCrory’s pint-sized but blindingly powerful performance as this fascinatingly complex tragic heroine. The play feels modern and yet still contains all the gravitas of its Greek tradition and history, as Medea convincingly invokes the power of the gods to support her through her terrible deeds, while her children play quietly with games consoles.

Medea is a rich psychological drama that examines murder and infanticide, betrayal and heartbreak  themes that still fascinate and appal us in equal measure today. Tom Scutt’s split level set – which brings us from the home, to an eerie woodland, to a wedding celebration  thoroughly enriches the experience, constantly pulling our eye to every corner of the stage, which is packed with action, activity and memorable images. The production is visually arresting and never for a moment dull: with so much life and detail to take in, it may even warrant being seen twice.

The production does not only recruit all those who are wary of the genre being dense and inaccessible, thanks to the clarity of the storytelling as well as the tension and fear cultivated from the opening about the storm that is to come. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with, or even suspicious of, more experimental movement work – or who may feel it might be at odds with the play’s content or form – Lucy Guerin’s choreography may well, once again, change your mind. Guerin’s work with the Chorus, who haunt and question Medea with every step she takes towards her terrible final decision, is incredibly poignant and striking, underpinning the play’s themes, ideas and the overall atmosphere, so that the production works upon you on a number of levels. Complemented by music created by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, the effect of all these elements, so beautifully brought together by Cracknell, is undeniably moving – almost overwhelming – by the end.

No doubt the character of Medea is difficult to portray, even more so for an audience to empathise with, but nonetheless McCrory’s portrayal certainly sheds some light on the phenomenon of women who murder, and why. McCrory is horrifying, fascinating, genuine and formidable in equal measure. Danny Sapani offers a satisfying counterpoint as her estranged husband: composed as he attempts to argue empirically that his new marriage to a younger wife benefits him and Medea both financially and socially. A small complaint would be that Sapani doesn’t quite communicate the earth-shattering gravity of what Medea has done to him at the play’s close, which may almost lead to Medea’s unforgivable attempt to wreak revenge upon him fruitless. While Cracknell cleverly keeps the violence off stage, aware that the audience’s imagination is probably more gruesome than any staged violence might be, it thus falls on Sapani and Medea to really convey the horror of what has happened to fire our imaginations even further.

Nonetheless, Medea is a gripping examination of human nature, loss, grief and the capacity for darkness we all have within us. And certainly it’s a lesson in the innovative use of space, movement and theatricality, drawing audiences, no matter what their preconceptions or tastes, into a tense, dark and compelling world.

Medea is playing at the National Theatre until 4 September. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.

Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.