Athena review – teenage duellists take a hesitant stab at friendship

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

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.

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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.

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.