Can you be friends with someone you have to stab with a sword? That’s the question being asked in Gracie Gardner’s fencing comedy Athena, currently receiving its UK premiere at Hackney’s Yard Theatre. As the thin gauze curtain is drawn back on a stage marked with the white lines of the piste, two figures face off. Dressed in full fencing regalia, the head-to-toe whites of mesh masks and plastic breastplates obscure any sense of gender, personality or difference. For the teenage girls beneath who are desperate to fit in, it’s the perfect disguise.
The first, who goes by Athena (Millicent Wong) after “the goddess of strategic warfare and all that”, is a native New Yorker who hates music and is laser-focused on fencing – more specifically, winning. The second, suburbanite Mary Wallace (you have to say both names), played by Grace Saif, spends her days reading feminist theory on Reddit and playing board games with her friends. An unlikely friendship is struck up between the pair. Up until now, Mary Wallace has been practising against her wall, but as Athena points out, a wall “can’t hit back”.
Athena and Mary Wallace often fail to understand each other, but the competitive camaraderie between them has an understated warmth. Wong and Saif know exactly how to play off one another, whether in their physical movement as they train and work out together or while exchanging the barbs of Gardner’s fast-paced, funny dialogue. Despite both actors remaining on stage for nearly the entire show, not a single beat is missed – a testament to Grace Gummer’s expert direction.
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