Athena at the Yard Theatre – review

Gracie Gardner’s play has its UK premiere

Grace Saif and Millicent Wong
Grace Saif and Millicent Wong
© Ali Wright

Athena and Mary Wallace are fencers. And, in the tradition of American high school sports, they take it far more seriously than they probably should.

In some ways they are opposites; Athena – which is a pseudonym – has a wild side coupled with a monomaniacal focus on her sport, whereas Mary Wallace, as her name implies, is a well-heeled suburbanite who just wants to fit in. Fencing, which has always seemed to me a posher form of boxing, mirrors the way they tease and spar with each other. But they are united in their ambition to make it to the nationals.

Gracie Gardner's play, which premiered at Off-Broadway venue Jack in 2018, feels fresh and true to the contemporary teenage experience. The dialogue is peppered with pop culture references, from Reddit to Game of Thrones, and both Athena and Mary Wallace are well-drawn characters who embody the paradoxical status of teens as both outsiders and archetypes.

And they are given fine interpretations by Millicent Wong and Grace Saif. Wong's Athena is icy and enigmatic, except when she fences and becomes prone to guttural screaming and dirty tactics. Saif's Mary Wallace is more recognisably peppy, teasing her training partner that she seems "homeschooled" in her oddness. But she too has hidden depths – the masks they wear feel all-too symbolic.

It's a poignant and often funny relationship that flirts on the margins of becoming romantic. It also demonstrates the way high schoolers can find solace in sports, whilst also allowing them to become unreliable mirrors of their social status. But despite its demonstrable qualities at times the script feels indulgent; there are longueurs and narrative over-embellishments that don't take us anywhere.

Grace Gummer's taut production is straightforwardly played out on Ingrid Hu's minimalist stage. A shaft of light marks the fencing strip, and during the final bout we see the scores and timer projected on the back wall. The outcome doesn't come as a great surprise, but a coda involving a new character (Amaia Naima Aguinaga's enjoyably spiky Jamie) does.

As with any sports drama it's essential the sport itself feels believable, and on that front this production scores top marks. Particular credit is due to Gummer and fight director Claire Llewellyn for choreographing such a long and realistic contest that never feels overly ‘acted'. But like fencing itself the play has a tendency to stay at one remove emotionally; parrying but never quite breaking through.