Brisbane matriarch Bernice, having been catfished out of the family money, sends her son Elliott to Sydney on a financial rescue mission to bag a wealthy suitor.
Still crushing on his best friend, our innocent hero finds himself negotiating the elite of the Emerald City, helped by the sage advice of his fabulously wealthy uncle.
From there the stakes inevitably rise according to a sequence of outrageous mis/fortune, fuelled by liberal and deliberate amounts of exuberant acting, flamboyant costume changes and cheesy pop.
In his writer notes, playwright Lewis Treston refers to a quote by Susan Sontag, who once stated that camp defines itself as ‘good because it’s awful’. As he points out, this is a pretty underwhelming description.
In fact, camp is a more complicated and transgressive beast, one deliberately mining the extremes of style to conjure slyly ironic value.
In Hubris and Humiliation, Treston has introduced camp to Jane Austen – resulting in a marriage of Austen’s elegant style, plotting and wit with exquisite ‘bad taste’.
Thus, rituals of Austen’s courtship involve, for example, hanging out for rich p****s at a Liberal Party function or a Baz Luhrmann party – while the Mrs Bingley-esque mother becomes a former checkout chick with RSI from scanning barcodes.
Meanwhile, language mixes the elegant with the profane, the sophisticated with deliberately cheesy boganisms, to hilarious effect.
In doing so, it gleefully captures both the warmth and absurdity of Australiana – while subverting the rigid social hierarchies that define Austen romances, to explore love that is fluid across class and gender.
With subversion in mind, being staged in the establishment environs of the Sydney Theatre Company adds extra frisson (and, perversely, legitimacy) to the crass excess. A purist may wince at the OTT archetypes, bitchy jabs at Luhrmann, dodgy accents and a Carly Rae Jepsen-infused dance sequence – but that’s part of camp’s deliberately playful allure.
In fact, at times it feels like the show could go further; because some of the cheese, particularly the post-Muriel bogan references, feels a little stale. Perhaps the two-hour runtime could have made way for some truly dangerous and really offensive moments.
Nevertheless, the show is superbly directed by Dean Bryant to ensure its unwavering style, verve and considerable panache – where otherwise the excess may have sunk it to the level of cheap panto.
The cast are also exceptional, with Roman Delo in the role of Elliott terrific as the show’s romantic heart and soul. He deftly balances the wit and human vulnerability of his character to anchor the show, especially when the gears grind into quieter, more reflective moments.
But, ultimately, it’s a testament to Treston’s skill as a writer that the show cleverly uses Elliott’s character to explore how love exists beneath the gaudy excess of camp.
That Hubris and Humiliation posits that it can be best found in quietly heartfelt commitment, not passion or flamboyance, is (ironically) the show’s most satisfyingly subversive take.
Hubris and Humiliation by Lewis Treston
Wharf 1 Theatre
Sydney Theatre Company
Director: Dean Bryant
Designer: Isabel Hudson
Lighting Designer: Alexander Berlage
Composer and Sound Designer: Mathew Frank
Assistant Director: Natali Caro
Fight Director and Intimacy Coordinator: Nigel Poulton
Choreographer: Sally Dashwood
Voice Coach: Angela Nica Sullen
Cast: Henrietta Enyonam Amevor, Mathew Cooper, Roman Delo, Celia Ireland, Melissa Kahraman, Andrew McFarlane, Ryan Panizza
Tickets: from $48
Hubris and Humiliation will be performed until 4 March 2023.