Theatre

Hubris & Humiliation, the Sydney Theatre Company’s enjoyable translation of Jane Austen to contemporary Sydney, could do with some gritty social critique.

By Fiona Kelly McGregor.

STC’s Hubris & Humiliation

A scene from the STC’s production of Hubris & Humiliation.
A scene from the STC’s production of Hubris & Humiliation.
Credit: Prudence Upton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels hinge on the dependence of women on marriage for financial security and social acceptance. Lewis Treston’s Hubris & Humiliation transposes these conceits to a gay male context, with mixed results.

Cute gormless Queenslander Elliott Delaney (Roman Delo) is reduced to marriage bait when his mother, Bernice (Celia Ireland), is scammed by a catfish. In danger of losing her house, ageing checkout chick Bernice inveigles her son to go to Sydney and move in with her feckless but fabulously wealthy gay brother, Roland (Andrew McFarlane), thence to find a suitor with enough money to save the Delaney family. Hopelessly in love with his best friend, Warren (Ryan Panizza), and urged equally by his adoptive sister, Paige – played with shrill brilliance by Melissa Kahraman – Elliott eventually agrees, even though all he wants in life is to settle down with Mr Right in a nice apartment with two cats and a fridge that makes ice. As Warren has just started romancing a rich daddy who also owns property in Sin City, Elliott can cling to his fantasy that he and Warren will end up together.

The star of the show may well be Isabel Hudson’s design. The entire play is a feast for the eyes. Roland sports suits as garish as they are elegant, his shoes straight out of Versace’s baroque line. Celia Ireland, brimming with energy after years away from theatre acting, vibrates in pink as Bernice; newcomer Henrietta Enyonam Amevor (who plays two roles) blares in postbox red. Hudson’s blue and gold set runs the length of the stage, part Regency, part harbour mansion, and is broken by doorways and windows through which characters enter and exit with the heady briskness of a French farce. The centre occasionally parts to reveal a kitschy painting of the harbour; panels are flipped by cast members creating sinks and a toilet for a funny, long bathroom scene at a party. Perhaps best and most apposite of all, the set recedes to simple ballroom wall as the cast gathers to dance – perfectly combining the complex courting rituals of both Austen and modern queerdom. In these scenes too, Alexander Berlage’s lighting animates and delights.

Oscar Wilde, with his observations of the performativity of social relations, or Noël Coward’s light comedies, come to mind more than Austen. No matter the centuries-old tradition of gay men writing through female characters to examine the centre of power from the margins and the vexations of romantic relations with men, choosing Austen as a foundation could never hold firm for a gay comedy of manners. Austen’s critique was of heterosexual relations and property, with women barely ranking above the latter in the early 19th century. Elliott is, after all, a bookshop manager (thank you, Dymocks), a city boy completely sure of his sexual orientation and as buff as an underwear model (thank you, Calvin Klein). Even if Roland turfed him out onto the mean streets of Kirribilli, this charming twink in Sydney would have opportunities to burn.

Treston’s choice to keep Elliott passive, apart from his yearning for that ice-making fridge, pushed from scene to scene by mother, sister, bookshop co-worker Amevor (“You’re my favourite plaything!” she shrieks, grabbing his phone to update his Grindr profile in their first scene together) produces some manipulative shrew stereotypes. They’re reinforced by the character of Brendan, Paige’s fiancé, who is equally hapless and quickly dumped.

To be fair, the female characters are far more evolved sexually than those of Austen, Coward or Oscar Wilde. They get plenty of good lines, and Ireland, Kahraman and Amevor pick up their respective balls and run with them. This is thanks not only to their dynamic talents but also to Dean Bryant’s canny casting of three actors who complement one another beautifully: Ireland’s Bernice, the slightly batty yet devious, good-hearted battler; Kahraman’s Paige, the strident, rebellious younger sister; and Amevor’s Chantel, the shop assistant at Dymocks, the sassy meddling offsider.

Amevor also plays Paige’s second love interest, Berliner Juki, with vampish flair. Yet the flatness of this character – “she’s a writer slash academic slash installation artist – it’s all about the slashes” – along with Elliott’s second love interest, opera director William, are some of the play’s biggest flaws. Warren isn’t a deep character either, giving Panizza, who plays both, the least to get his teeth into.

Both Juki and William are insufferable snobs and unbelievably rich. Treston’s choice to represent the elite with one of the most precarious professions in Australia undermines the play’s claim to critique class. Granted, Juki’s university might pay better than any biennale, but endowing her and William with convenient family fortunes gives Treston licence to tar them with good old Australian anti-intellectualism. Judging by the uproarious laughter that greeted Juki’s tatts, a Marrickville warehouse party and her book about fucking (without touching), the audience had no problem with that. It may be ironic or axiomatic that such attitudes are so normalised among the audience of Sydney’s most prestigious theatre company.

The ensemble scenes were among my favourites. Bryant’s positioning of the cast, his deftness with every eye-roll, pointed finger and tossed head, was calibrated to the finest and funniest degree. Sally Dashwood’s choreography is pure unbridled joy. The dancing sequences, where each character partners with a dummy, are wonderful, even if by now the dressing of Elliott in a Regency-era ball gown is not gonna get us across the Austen line. Paige rocked her moustache and helmet though, perhaps because there was less riding on it.

There’s a discomfiting asymmetry to the two halves, with so many reveals and plot twists in the last 15 minutes of act two that there was barely time to swallow one before the next came along. Some didn’t gel. It’s a fun play overall but more trenchant social commentary would have nailed it.

A couple of friends remarked to me that the popularity of Hubris & Humiliation with mainstream audiences is due to its portrayal of safe gays. They’re probably right. The desire for safety is, in a sense, the most abiding theme of this play. I cling to the belief that art is at its best when interrogating social conventions rather than upholding them, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. But the playing field is never level.

Hubris & Humiliation plays at Wharf 1, Sydney, until March 4.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "Austentatious fun".

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