Athena review – teenage duellists take a hesitant stab at friendship

Yard theatre, London
Two vividly portrayed fencers shuffle towards a climactic battle in this smart, galvanising coming-of-age drama

The verbal sparring is sharp and pointed in Gracie Gardner’s quick-witted play about two American high-schoolers training to fence competitively. Performed in full fencing get-up, this is a show of friendship fuelled by competition, of teenagers trying to figure it all out: whether practice is meant to be painful, how far they can bend the rules, how to parry both on and off the piste.

When Athena – it’s her stage name for fencing; she likes the air of mystery – asks Mary Wallace to train with her, the almost evenly matched pair are total strangers. Through casual disdain, deadpan humour and daily training, they shuffle themselves into a hesitant friendship.

What Gardner writes so brilliantly is the way the pair talk: it’s mundane, funny, caustic, awkward. Under Grace Gummer’s direction, their characters are vividly real. Millicent Wong gives Athena a brazen nonchalance, as someone who has already learned how to take up space through the sport. Grace Saif plays Mary Wallace as a step behind, incredibly smart but a sore loser who is far more concerned with what others think. One is suburban, wanting to fit in. One is from the city, wanting to stand out. Both are sulky and quick-tempered, eager to learn and be liked.

Most of the actual bouts of fencing are brief, one hit in the leg or chest and then they’re back to their easy chatter. But as time draws us closer to qualifiers, the action inevitably builds to a knockout match between the two.

A brazen nonchalance … Athena.
A brazen nonchalance … Athena. Photograph: Ali Wright

Here, Gardner writes a full fencing match in real time: three rounds of three minutes with one-minute rests in between. The scene is performed wordlessly, except for the ref’s “En garde! Prêts? Allez!” and the occasional pant or yell with a point lost or won. With every clash of the swords, the power dynamics shift. There are moments of real tension, but in a 12-minute scene, it needs to be higher-energy to really hold us. The brave decision doesn’t entirely pay off, and what should be the climax falls a little flat.

There are elements of character that could delve deeper, questions that remain unanswered. Nevertheless, it’s galvanising to see a play about two young women arguing over sport, to see a show dedicated to the importance of learning how to grow into yourself, how to improve, how to challenge, and how to fight.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Almighty Sometimes review – vivid take on teenage mental health
Kendall Feaver’s striking debut pits a daughter who wants to give up medication against the mother who wishes to keep her safe

Lyn Gardner

15, Feb, 2018 @12:00 AM

Article image
Kites review – story of girls’ friendship doesn’t quite fly
Lovely portrayals of childhood friends in postwar Ireland can’t really make up for a muddled production

Arifa Akbar

09, Mar, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Overflow review – friendship and fear in bathroom-sink drama
Reece Lyons stars in Travis Alabanza’s thought-provoking play which explores trans safety and is set in a public toilet

Kate Wyver

10, Dec, 2020 @9:56 AM

Article image
Lit review – a blistering look at teenage trauma
Eve Austin is vividly volatile as a schoolgirl adrift over summer holidays in Sophie Ellerby’s slow-burning drama at the HighTide festival

Chris Wiegand

15, Sep, 2019 @9:12 AM

Article image
Easy review – an unfiltered snap of teenage agonies
Robyn Wilson is superb as a 16-year-old facing a daunting rite of passage in Amy Blakelock’s poignant one-woman play

Miriam Gillinson

08, Nov, 2019 @2:16 PM

Article image
The Hunting Lodge review – fairytale gets real about love and friendship
Purni Morell directs a lush production of Ignace Cornelissen’s drama about a prince who is under pressure to remarry after his bride goes missing

Lyn Gardner

08, Feb, 2017 @1:30 PM

Article image
Duty | Tour review – friendship under siege in the streets of Edinburgh
The friendship of two female soldiers is the poignant basis of this intense, immersive audio play that takes you on a tour of the local area

Mark Fisher

13, Aug, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Jack Rooke review – eyebrow-raising stories about love, sex and friendship
In this intimate show backed by a live harp, the effortlessly charming comedian expounds on platonic, brotherly and romantic love

Kate Wyver

10, Aug, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
Red Pitch review – football, friendship and the fear of being left behind
Tackling gentrification, change and ambition, Tyrell Williams’s writing creates a convincing bond in a play that is fierce, affectionate and effortlessly funny

Miriam Gillinson

23, Feb, 2022 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Village review – teenage firebrand leads resistance against patriarchy
Anya Chalotra is compelling as a 16-year-old who leads the women in her Indian village to stand up to Art Malik’s sadistic, tyrannical cop

Michael Billington

15, Sep, 2018 @9:00 AM