Alicia Haddick


Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day – first-look review

Poetry and performance take centre stage in Mohammad Shawky Hassan's inventive challenge to society's heteronormativity.

An often-forgotten part of William Shakespeare’s life is the question that he may be bisexual. We may never know for sure without asking the man himself (and besides, language has evolved that such descriptors would need reclassifying in a 16th-century context), but he certainly liked to write about it a lot even if he didn’t feel this way. Many of the playwright’s sonnets refer to a man known as the ‘Fair Youth’, including many of his most famous and oft-quoted poems and writings.

Sonnet 18 is one of many writings addressed to this unknown individual, and starts with one of the most famous  lines in all his writing: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

The undefinable space that is Club Scheherazade is used for the performance of love and longing and its intersection with race and queer identity, preserving its desire and finding a space to bring it into the open within a world that forces such feelings to remain hidden from public view.

To steal another famous Shakespeare quote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” In this space beyond reality and within the metaphysical realm, the heteronormative society that keeps the passionate embrace of these same-sex romances hidden in the bedroom and the closets of a queer person’s heart is unleashed onto the stage in rapturous excess.

Actors are placed against green screen backgrounds and transported into fantastical realms. The intersecting accounts from one-night Grindr hook-ups and the longing for romance is turned into theatre and spectacle through a queer lens. Sexual pleasure is transported from the intimate space of the bedroom to a white void of posed recreations of sex positions and passionate threesomes, and the written flirtations of a private message is read against a sexually-charged pure love between men that drops the pretence of restraint.

In this liminal space, emotions replace the visitors as the primary drivers of the events. Indeed, Hassan’s fascinating video piece lacks a primary protagonist, flicking instead between the lives and images of these men as they both address and ignore the audience while reflecting on their love.

The closest thing to a central character comes not through a person but through the omnipotent words spoken above their realm of existence: beyond the Shakespeare quotes accompanying the start of each chapter are various songs and the poetry of Lebanese-Australian poet Wadih Sa’adeh.

These words speak of disenfranchisement and alienation and contrast the cathartic release of details and recreations of the past and present. Yet they speak to the film’s core message: while love can feel intense, and while drag and safe spaces like Club Scheherazade can be a location through which true identity comes to life, it is merely an escape from a world they feel they must escape.

It’s a world they can’t escape forever. A rush to reality near the film’s climax reminds us of the terror that can come from living true, one that’s only amplified in the Arab-speaking world. It’s something that only emphasises reality’s absence from the film until that point, and the joy that could exist were Club Scheherazade even close to a representation of our reality.

While perhaps lacking something more to say beyond an account of relationships in a space beyond our own, perhaps that’s enough. Based on the filmmaker’s experiences and fantasies, these intertwined narratives give off a folk-like quality that leaves you exiting the theatre contemplating what was and what could be. It speaks to a non-existent eternal summer. But thy eternal summer shall not fade.

Published 14 Feb 2022

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Mohammad Shawky Hassan Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day

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