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ATHENA written by Gracie Gardner | Review

High school fencing as a setting for a play: I’ll be honest, I was sceptical. I was wrong. Athena is exhilarating theatre at its very best.

Athena - Photo by Ali Wright.Athena (Millicent Wong) – her ‘fencing name’; it adds to her mystique – has just beaten Mary Wallace (Grace Saif), acquiring her number fifty-four seeding, presumably in the New York Junior Women’s Épée League, and Mary Wallace isn’t taking it well. But brash, speak-her-mind Athena sees the opportunity, and invites her well-matched opponent to become her training partner on a permanent basis. With some persuasion, Mary Wallace agrees, and the action follows their verbal and physical sparring on and off the piste.

Ursula K Le Guin said that ‘the artist deals in what cannot be said in words.’ It’s tempting to suggest that writer Gracie Gardner is expressing in fencing what cannot be said in words. But, on closer inspection of her zinger-packed script, it’s clear the opposite is true: the play is a fencing match, constructed out of words. We see Generation Z at its fiery and feistiest, the characters’ focus darting from home-life (they have very different family experiences) to fashion (it’s ‘like an arms race’) to why they’ve taken up a five-hundred-year-old sport anyway (here they agree: it’s all about getting university scholarships).

The cut and thrust of what is both one extended conversation and months in the lives of a pair getting to know each other in a most intimate way is so elegantly woven with (convincing!) stage-fighting that I can barely blink. We rush headlong from one laugh to the next, but there is a feeling in my gut that the physical pain inflicted by Athena’s signature move is the least of the impacts these two will have upon one another.

Mention has to go to Esther Kehinde Ajayi, whose composition and sound design punctuates the breathless action and dialogue with the actual sound of distinctly female inhalations. It is haunting and arresting, hinting that we shouldn’t dare consider what is going unspoken. Likewise, Ingrid Hu and Marty Langthorne conjure a fencing club, a teenage bedroom, a nightclub with lighting alone. No set changes here: only speed-of-light transformations from there to here, keeping up with the velocity of the swinging blade.

For all the quickness, these young women grow up in front of our eyes, and when they check the straps of one another’s visors, it is an act of compassionate, mature tenderness. I’m left feeling that this – this – is what theatre can do, what it is for. In Grace Gummer’s subtle grasp on the words, every beat landing an impact, we see what a director and her choices can do.

God, it’s good to be back in a theatre, back at The Yard, and yet, at once, in a New York City fencing club, watching two women do battle with each other, but mostly with the world.

5 Star Rating

Review by Ben Ross

Following an acclaimed extended run in New York, ATHENA is a fierce coming of age comedy. Set in a New York City fencing club, warriors Athena and Mary Wallace are training for the Junior Olympics. They practice together. They compete against each other. They spend their lives together. They wish they were friends.

Written by Gracie Gardner and directed by Grace Gummer.

Athena – Millicent Wong
Mary Wallace – Grace Saif
Jamie – Amaia Aguinaga

4-23 October, 8pm
The Yard Theatre
Unit 2a Queen’s Yard, London E9 5EN


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