Theatre critic Michael Billington reviews the GB Olympics women's fencing team

Can they rival Hamlet's final duel? And how do they channel all that concealed aggression?
michael billington with fencers
En garde … Michael Billington gets close to the action as Anna Bentley (left) and Sophie Troiano cross swords at the Lea Valley athletics centre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
En garde … Michael Billington gets close to the action as Anna Bentley (left) and Sophie Troiano cross swords at the Lea Valley athletics centre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
Michael Billington
Sun 15 Jul 2012 14.10 EDT

"A hit, a very palpable hit." How often have I heard that cry go up while watching the climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes, which up to now has largely constituted all I know about fencing. And, just as the wrestling match is invariably the best bit in As You Like It, so the final duel is something we all look forward to in Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.

But, after watching our Olympic women's foilists in training, I've learned a lot more: about what one competitor called the search for "calm control", about the sacrifices they make for their sport, and about the urge to rescue it from its elitist image.

First, however, I had to learn a few basics. Weapons come in three kinds: the foil, the epee, the sabre. Our 10-strong Olympics team, comprising six women and four men, all specialise in one particular weapon. Fencing is also both an individual and a team sport: individual bouts are based on a best-of-five hits, while the group event is rather like a relay-race in which each competitor inherits the previous person's points, up to a maximum of 15. Confused? Even the most ardent fencers admit their sport's arcane rules work against its popularity.

But watching our top women's foilists – Anna Bentley, Sophie Troiano and Natalia Sheppard – training at the Lee Valley athletics centre is an eye-opener. Forget Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone roaming all over Nottingham Castle in the big sword-fight in Robin Hood. This is a physically confined sport in which action is restricted to the piste: a long narrow mat that, to the naked eye, looks about the length of a cricket pitch.

There is a concealed aggression about the way fencers lunge at their opponents to score a hit. I had expected the balletic element in fencing, with its parries and feints. What startled me was the speed and daring with which a foilist pursues her opponent, often to the edge of the piste, to land a crucial hit. This is the stuff of drama, with the mask adding an element of mystery to each performer. When a move failed, one of the women constantly let out a huge cry of "Grrrr" in agonised frustration. Something that was once a mortal combat is now a skilled sport, but what Harold Pinter called the "hidden violence" of cricket could equally be applied to fencing.

The women behind the mask, however, turned out to be great friends and good company. Bentley, at 31, is our senior women's foilist and a practised competitor. "I started fencing at 11," she says, "largely because my brother did it and I just had to beat him. You'd be astonished at how many people take up fencing because of sibling rivalry. I kept at it while working in the House of Lords, providing information to peers about European Union legislation – but the day London won the Olympics, I was so overcome with emotion I decided on the spot to give up the day-job and devote myself to fencing."

Troiano, 25, shows the same monastic dedication. "I started fencing aged eight," she says, "with a Saturday-morning club in Wimbledon. I continued at Oxford where I did a four-year biochemistry degree. Now I live at home with my parents and do a three-hour return journey every day to Lee Valley, but it's worth it: what I adore about fencing is the body is forced to respond to an extreme mental challenge."

Both are acutely aware of the need to make fencing less exclusive, and talk about an initiative called Go Fence, set up by the British Fencing Association, which aims to extend the sport's appeal beyond the narrow worlds of private clubs and fee-paying academies and into state schools: this venture that has already met with success in the London boroughs of Camden and Newham. They also ruefully point out that it is only in the past 12 months that the women's fencing team, thanks to funding from UK Sport and sponsorship from Beazley, has had the organised back-up that enables them to compete at the same level as the men.

In rare off-duty moments, the women say they watch comedy DVDs of Miranda and Fawlty Towers to help them relax. It's nice to think that, if the women's foilists do well against the top teams from Italy, Russia and South Korea, we'll have Miranda Hart and John Cleese to thank for it.

Anna Bentley's favourites

Film Jaws

Book Catch-22

Bands Pink Floyd/Stone Roses

Sophie Troiano's favourites

Film The Notebook

Books Anything by Malcolm Gladwell

Singer David Guetta

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