I’d been wary, coming in. Of course, visiting a new place alone is almost inevitably nerve-racking, and this is certainly the case during my visit to The Yard Theatre, where I’m set to watch Athena, a story by American playwright Gracie Gardner. But there’s more to my hesitancy than the simple novelty of The Yard, for all its gentrified millennial aesthetics.
As an American student in the UK, I was curious to see British theatre-makers handle the Americanisms embedded in Athena’s text. Upon arrival I wasn’t sure what to make of the company, but I’m happy to report this production has successfully snuck into my heart.
Starring Millicent Wong as titular Athena and Grace Saif as friendly rival Mary Wallace, the show pushes audiences right into the deep end of American teenage girlhood, with the added edge of high school sports—in this case, fencing.
The story unfolds mostly through the girls’ training sessions, and while they seem to have little in common outside the sport, Athena and Mary Wallace manage to build a steady rhythm toward friendship. Featuring the most realistic teenage girl dialogue I’ve heard in a long time—brava to Wong and Saif’s delivery, and special compliments to voice coach Rachel Coffey for honing some impressive American accents from the performers—it became easy to lose myself in the show’s pleasant authenticity.
The production’s staging is effective, for all its no-frills dramaturgical choices. Taking place on a mostly bare stage, our only clue to any concrete environment is a long blue rectangle painted diagonally through the stage floor—the piste, fencing strip—and most scene changes are signaled with lighting cues. The choreography is thrilling to watch, too. Fight director Claire Llewellyn does a brilliant job molding the physicality of fencing into rich and meaningful movement that is reflective of the characters.
The play culminates in an epic, real-time fencing match between the two girls, a wordless 12-minute face-off. But this grand finale is quiet—eerily so. With no dialogue (save for an occasional disembodied ‘en garde!’), all we hear are the shuffling of feet and the clanking of sabres. Part of me wishes there had been something to underscore this: music, or maybe muted cheers from spectators. But on the other hand, the quiet makes for a thoroughly tense experience. It’s a deliberate risk, but one I’m still not sure is entirely worth it.
Athena also tentatively approaches themes of class. Although this is not explored much further than mentions of suburban morning routines and the woes of commuting, I find the subtle scratching of these topics a poignant reflection of adolescence itself—at this age, you’re wary of showing off those most vulnerable parts of yourself, including the intricacies of class. For two young fencers, letting your “garde” down is the bravest thing you can do.
If you’re the kind of theatregoer who finds value in the mundane, and value in even the most ephemeral relationships, watch Athena. It really is a gem.