Review of ‘The Bread We Break’ at Contact Theatre, Manchester.
To talk of breaking bread with others suggests more than just a communal meal. The phrase also implies a coming-together, making a connection, and perhaps sharing ideas.
While not a crumb passes our lips during Miray Sidhom’s new show, her insightful reflections on bread, political protest, and the history of Egypt offer an abundance of food for thought.
As subject matter for a piece of theatre it may all sound a bit niche, but Sidhom is an engaging performer – skillfully deploying music, movement, sampling, and video to draw you into her carefully considered layers of narrative.
From the time of the pharaohs, all the way through to modern day Cairo, the show highlights how the stability of Egypt is inextricably linked to the availability and affordability of bread. Limit access to that basic foodstuff and social unrest inevitably follows.
Even during times of relative calm, bread plays a uniquely pivotal role in Egyptian life, and its influence (and ingredients) permeate the production in unexpected ways.
During a family breakfast, wheat grain stands in for the black tea being poured from pot to cup. Later, a mic captures, and amplifies, the sound of flowing water.
There’s a fascination with flour. Sidhom rubs it into her arms, exploring the sensation of how it feels. She blows some from her hand up into the air, and her fingers trace out patterns on the flour-coated floor.
Although historic incidents are recounted in direct chronological order, the storytelling generally is blurry around the edges – blending the personal with the political, and kneading together facts, memories, and more abstract elements of performance.
Sidhom moves effortlessly from direct conversations with the audience, to passages of lyrical description (“treacle traffic in 50-degree heat”), and even dreamy moments of contemplation.
At one point, having flung fistfuls of fine ‘flour’ particles all around her, Sidhom gazes intensely into her dense billowing handiwork. It’s as if time dissolves, and the air is thick not just with the “clouds of discontent” that led to more bread riots in the 1970s, but also perhaps the teargas deployed against protestors in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Revolution.
As a production it feels satisfyingly cohesive. A patchwork of pieces of patterned rug covers the stage, echoing the fragmentary nature of Sidhom’s narrative. Three while sails, referencing traditional Nile River boats, act as screens upon which imagery and footage is projected. There is a burst of traditional Baladi dance, but also more contemporary movement – angular and purposeful, seemingly influenced by poses from the figures that bestrode ancient wall paintings.
Most notably, musician Medhat Elmasry adds a glorious percussive energy throughout, using tabla and tambourine to full effect.
Alive to its relevance, the show joins the dots from ‘then’ to ‘now’, and ‘there’ to ‘here’. Noting that just as the cost-of-living crisis deepens in the UK, the government’s new policing bill is creating powers to severely restrict the right to protest. Meanwhile, Egypt’s heavy reliance on imported flour from Ukraine and Russia means an uncertain future for its food supply.
Sidhom recalls her mother’s resigned declaration about conditions in Egypt – “this country will never change”. She herself is not so sure.
While a chant of protest plays out on a loop “Bread. Freedom. Social Justice”; flour, water and yeast are mixed together in a jar. Bubbles froth up and spill over the side – and the ensuing chemical reaction, that process of fermentation, becomes a metaphor for transformation, and unstoppable social change.
‘The Bread We Break’ is a heady brew, an assured and imaginative reframing of a personal journey of exploration into something more universal. A timely reminder of the vital role protest can play – and a championing of the cumulative power of individual acts of resistance.
Performance seen on 25 March 2022.