A fencer in a white suit and mask raises her foil and screams a victory cry. Her opponent kneels on the floor, weeping inconsolably. Athena by Gracie Gardner captures the intense emotions and baffling contradictions of being a teenage girl, refracting them through competitive fencing. The play and the production, directed by Grace Gummer, is poised, a little weird and deeply funny.
After beating her in a regional fencing tournament, Athena invites Mary Wallace to train with her. Mary Wallace is initially hesitant, suspicious of Athena’s motives and worried that becoming friends with Athena would sabotage her competitive edge. Athena cajoles her into meeting with her to spar every day after school to improve. Through a series of short, naturalistic scenes, something like a friendship starts to unfurl. Despite their differences, the girls seem to need each other.
Athena is a flamboyant fencer. In addition to her trademark battle cry, she has adopted Athena as her ‘fencing name’ and has perfected a signature slashing move that may or may not be within the rules. Millicent Wong captures the vulnerability at Athena’s core; she craves female friends, someone to share the emotional intensity of her life with. Mary Wallace, played by Grace Saif, at first guardedly presents herself as a ‘cool’ girl but gradually reveals her nerdiness, monologuing about trees and marine science. Wong and Saif both deftly walk the tightrope walk of playing teenagers; while their whip-smart dialogue can make Athena and Mary Wallace seem almost like adults, there are regular reminders of how young they are and how much they are still figuring out. For example, when Athena takes Mary Wallace out drinking in New York for the first time, depositing her in the Emergency Room, Mary Wallace is hurt that Athena didn’t take more care of her. ‘I’m not here to take care of you’, Athena retorts.
Grace Gummer’s directing makes the play sing. She choreographs Athena and Mary Wallace’s verbal sparring. In their first training session together, they go through a physical warm up, trading training regimes and upping the ante, often hilariously. The verbally dense scenes are broken up by brilliantly choreographed fencing bouts, designed by fight director Claire Llewellyn. In the last section of the play, Gummer boldly opts to stage a ten-minute fencing match, which takes place mostly in silence. While such a move might risk losing the audience, the match is mesmerising, as the high stakes of the match have been established by the play. There is something particularly interesting about not being able to see the actors’ faces, concealed by masks that make them look like medieval knights or beekeepers. Instead, I found myself watching the actors’ body language far more attentively, trying to work out what the characters were feeling. Why did she give up? Did she let her win? How did it feel to beat her friend? Ultimately, however, Gardner’s play lets the girls retain a core inscrutability.
The setting of a municipal sports hall is perfectly evoked by Ingrid Hu’s white and blue set design with floor to ceiling netting. The floor is also pleasingly noisy when the characters put on their fencing shoes. In the fencing match, Marty Langthorne’s naturalistic lighting becomes focused in a white beam on the strip of floor where the match is being played. Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s sound design increases the tension, with heavy breathing and a sound like running a wet finger round a wine glass.
I sometimes wished that the play would go deeper beneath the surface of its characters’ lives, rather than glancing off. Both Athena and Mary Wallace have monologues in which they talk to their parents, giving the impression that the two of them come from very different backgrounds. However, as the two characters are alone onstage for most of the play, they can sometimes seem to have emerged from a vacuum. Perhaps though this is truer to how the characters experience each other – an extremely intense relationship without ever really knowing each other.
Watching Athena, I couldn’t help being reminded of Dance Nation by Clare Barron, another play about teenage girls engaged in competitive sport that combines hypernaturalistic dialogue with more stylised elements. It is still so refreshing to see art in which girls are allowed to embrace being competitive, without having to apologise for it or sand down their edges. ‘I LOVE TO WIN’, Mary Wallace shouts. Like Dance Nation, Athena also hints at the costs of winning and striving to be the best. Fencing is not a team sport. Do you have to choose between winning and friendship? If you don’t, does that mean that you haven’t got what it takes?
Athena is on at the Yard Theatre till 23rd October. More info here.