Sydney World Pride season has begun: across the city, theatre and performance companies are producing works by, for and about the global queer community – often with a local twist. If we’re lucky, Hubris & Humiliation, a new play by Lewis Treston making its debut at Sydney Theatre Company, has just set the tone for the weeks ahead: an explosion of creativity and a celebration of queer joy.
Treston’s play, which won the 2021 new play award at the Australian theatre festival in New York, is a camp homage to Jane Austen’s social comedies. Brisbane boy Elliott (Roman Delo) has been pining after his best friend Warren (Ryan Panizza) for over half his life. However, all that mooning must be set aside when it is revealed that Elliott’s mother (Celia Ireland) has been catfished so thoroughly that the family is about to lose their home. Her scheme to recoup the losses? Send Elliott to Sydney, where he can live with his estranged but rich Uncle Roland (Andrew McFarlane) until he finds a wealthy man to marry.
When Elliott crosses paths with aloof opera director William D Cray (Panizza again), sparks fly Lizzie-and-Darcy style. When it’s revealed that Elliott’s sister Paige (Melissa Kahraman) has secretly arrived in Sydney too, dodging an imminent proposal from her sweet but basic boyfriend Brendan (Mathew Cooper), shenanigans ensue.
The entanglements of love, family, money and class chase these characters from a Dymocks bookstore to the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, from a Marrickville warehouse party to a brief stopover in Berlin, where a radical artist (Henrietta Enyonam Amevor) has plenty to say about the nature of love.
Directed by Dean Bryant, who treats dialogue like a dance between characters, this play has a rich sense of pace and tone, which manifests onstage with delightful musicality.
Treston’s characters speak in a heady blend of Regency-era language and the broad, inventive slang of contemporary Australia – both of the regional, proudly bogan-identified variety and the more hyperconscious cleverness of queer Sydney culturati. This shouldn’t work, but somehow it lands perfectly, at least in part because the company are so comfortable placing a foot in both worlds. Dating prospects are compared to the cultural cachet of Smith’s and Red Rock Deli chips, before the romantic leads engage in florid and devastating banter. Call it the best of both worlds.
In a comedy, timing is everything, and Bryant ensures the company is never off the beat. There are a dizzying amount of jokes in Treston’s script, and they all earn a laugh from at least some of the opening night audience. There are a good two dozen or so that seem to have everyone in the room roaring. The humour is refreshingly queer – suffused with love, even when it’s cutting – and the jokes are sharp but never cruel.
In roles that lesser writers would easily sacrifice on the altar of comedy – that is, the ostensibly straight mother and sister – Ireland and Kahraman instead often deliver the best jokes and all but run away with their scenes. This is a play where a twinkle in the eye means everything, and these two shine the brightest – though the company is uniformly excellent, sometimes startlingly so.
McFarlane’s Uncle Roland is a new entry in pop culture’s assorted beloved elder gay characters; his deployment of a plot twist in the form of an anagram written while drunk on limoncello is a work of art.
Delo and Panizza, both making their Sydney Theatre Company debuts, sizzle as rivals and love interests, and Cooper’s performance as good old Brendan has surprising heart. Amevor plays two wildly different roles and approaches them both with ease and daring, playing most charmingly against fish-out-of-water Elliott as his much bolder counterpart.
Then there are the visual gags and motifs. On Isabel Hudson’s gorgeous Regency-inspired set that summons ballrooms and Sydney Harbour all at once, there are multiple dance scenes with unexpected partners (choreographed by Sally Dashwood), a makeover scene and a reference to Baz Luhrmann that’s too joyful a surprise to reveal here. Hudson’s costumes are a confection of colour, packed with references, glamour and camp sensibilities – you could write a thesis on the shoes each character wears – and they are instrumental in creating this romantic queer fantasy onstage.
Alexander Berlage’s lights provide witty commentary all on their own, while Mathew Frank’s composition and sound design is downright delicious, with Bridgerton-style Regency remixes of pop songs, witty original pieces and soap-operatic stings in emotional moments, elevating the production to new heights.
Queer adaptations of Austen have been done before: remember last year’s Fire Island, Joel Kim Booster’s wonderful gay adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, to name just one recent example. But Hubris & Humiliation might just be the funniest: zeitgeist-y without feeling forced, camp without self-consciousness, and just divergent enough from these well-known stories to keep audiences guessing.
Hubris & Humiliation is comfortingly familiar, with sitcom sensibilities, especially in its comedy setups and payoffs, but it still feels new. How often do we see queer work that is silly, proud and satisfyingly polished? How often do we get to just revel in queer comedy? It doesn’t happen often enough, but it happens beautifully here.
Hubris & Humiliation is on at Wharf 1 theatre, Sydney Theatre Company until 4 March 2023.