Theatre Review: Hubris & Humiliation (Sydney Theatre Company) ★★★★

Lewis Treston’s new comedy, Hubris & Humiliation, takes Jane Austen and gives her a very Australian injection of camp, just in time for Mardi Gras season. The boys are sexy, the jokes are gloriously stupid, and the story is outrageous. Is it too much to call it “WorldPride & SocioeconomicPrejudice”?

Elliot Delany (Roman Delo) is a sweet, simple Brisbane guy who just wants a nice place in Kangaroo Valley, some cats, and a fridge with an ice-maker. But when his family hits hard times, he’s sent to Sydney with strict instructions from his mother Bernice (Celia Ireland) to marry, the richer the better. The problem is, he’s in love with his best friend Warren (Ryan Panizza) but has never acted upon it. Meanwhile his adopted sister Paige (Melissa Kahraman) has realised that she’s not actually in love with her boyfriend, Warren’s cousin Brendan (Mathew Cooper). Hilarity, and a lot of double-casting, ensues as Elliot and Paige traverse the globe in search of love in whatever unexpected form it takes.

Andrew McFarlane and Ryan Panizza in Hubris & Humiliation at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

As writer Lewis Treston hinted at in our recent interview, Hubris & Humiliation is a broad comedy with jokes for everyone, and that was evident on opening night as laughter rippled from different quarters of the audience depending on the gags. Jokes about Sydney’s geography overlapped with jokes about gay sex, while others gently mocked the fluidity of sexuality, riffing off Austen-motifs (think Bridgerton meets Kath & Kim). While one at Baz Luhrmann’s expense, unified the room.

Australia has its own brand of high camp. There’s something about the Australian psyche that revels in the absurdities of suburban living and the pretensions of class. While many of the queer jokes in the piece are broad and universal, the Australian humour is intensely specific. Everyone on stage is putting on a drag show, just without the clothes, makeup, and heels.

Henrietta Enyonam Amevor, Roman Delo and Andrew McFarlane in Hubris & Humiliation at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

Treston can write a pithy one-liner and the best of them came in the form of scripted off the cuff remarks delivered with excellent timing. Delo’s expressive face gives good comedy, managing to be believably sexy and also down on his romantic luck at the same time. Panizza works double time as the flamboyant bestie Warren, and the dashing but harsh William D. Cray, a rich, arrogant suitor who could solve all the Delany families problems. Cray’s so sure of himself that at one point he whips off his towel to stand naked before the audience declaring himself a ‘10’! The biggest laughs of the night came courtesy of Kahraman who nails the artifice and arch tone of the play perfectly, while Henrietta Enyonam Amevor was hilarious in a variety of characterful roles.

Roman Delo and Henrietta Enyonam Amevor in Hubris and Humiliation at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

There’s a scrappy vibe to the chaos that feels oddly placed on a Sydney mainstage, but not unwelcome. The staging was a little awkward at times though and missed a few easy comedic tricks. As anyone who’s worked in a bookshop knows, there are endless hours of fun to be had by the careful juxtaposition of book titles. Award-winning director Dean Bryant, who did wonders with Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Fun Home in 2021 returns for this production, but Hubris & Humiliation doesn’t hit the emotional heights of that show, or the sharply choreographed farce of STC’s Blithe Spirit.

When I first read the STC marketing line for Hubris & Humiliation—”Muriel’s Wedding-meets-Kath & Kim with all the queer fabulousness of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, topped off with a twist of nineteenth century charm”—it seemed like someone had Googled “gay” and “Australian”, and thrown the words into ChatGPT, but now having seen the show the description is spot on! At times it’s less Austen, and more Oscar Wilde meets The Real Housewives of Sydney. Don’t dig too deeply, we’re not here for dissections of the commodification of youth, the toxicity of idealized gay bodies, the politics of sub/dom relationships, or the moral and emotional implications of sexual fluidity… oh look, a shiny disco ball has descended from the ceiling!

The cast of Hubris & Humiliation at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

Hubris & Humiliation is camp, crass, and here for one helleva good time; but unlike the Austen that inspired it, it isn’t seeking to give us any new truths (universally acknowledged or not), and to be honest, I don’t care one bit. This the perfect “go with your mates and have a laugh” show, then have a few drinks under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and celebrate all the weird and wonderful that ways we love one another.

By Chad Armstrong

Hubris & Humiliation plays Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre until March 4th, 2023 as part of Sydney WorldPride. Click here for tickets and more information.

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