Every few years some rare collision of meteorological factors will result in a red rain of Saharan dust clogging the exhaust pipes of cars in Wrexham and powdering suburban rooftops in Surrey. In this way particles of African sand, picked up and lifted and caught on the current, can find themselves spread across the world like a global cloak, alighting on the shoulders of those who have never and will never set foot in the desert.
It is these webs of connection, this process of dissemination – by wind, by wire, by digital signal, by the touch of hand or a soft word whispered into an ear – that Curious Directive, the company behind last year’s acclaimed Your Last Breath, are attempting to illustrate here in their striated and intricate production.
A young Egyptian woman in a cherry red head-scarf makes a pilgrimage from Cairo to London, visiting the major European museums en route as a way of staying connected to the brother she lost in Tahir Square. In one of several parallel narrative strands, a British government official in Egypt in the 1950s is on a covert fact-finding mission when his plane goes down in the desert. Hopping through time once more, this time to the 1980s, a young art student makes a piece of sculpture as a way of commemorating a Cumbrian mining accident in which she too lost a brother. Leaping forwards to 2022 an academic outlines the thesis of his new book, relating the viral spread of ideas around the world with the way that ants communicate.
In terms of stagecraft alone, After the Rainfall is a beautiful thing to behold. It is immaculate in its use of movement, shifting between its various distinct worlds and time periods with remarkable ease. No gesture is without purpose, no action superfluous. The performers are whipped and buffeted by desert winds, they are penned in on London tube trains; they balance precariously on chairs as they create their own internal flashback structure, a series of echoes of echoes.
The company fling question after question at the audience: about the aftermath of Empire, about the cultural and emotional significance of ancient artefacts, about the many disparate ways in which people communicate and connect with one another. The piece as a whole is as densely lettered as the Rosetta Stone, which plays a pivotal part in the narrative, while images captured on Facebook and camera phone are another recurring motif. The production seems genuinely excited about the evolution of communication technology, the rapidity with which ideas can be spread, the way a single image can leap across the planet like a spark through arid grass.
There’s an awful lot to unpick here and some of the strands are given more space to breathe – to exhale and expand – than others, meaning that some of the characters remain sketches – elegant and artfully drawn, but sketches all the same. There are times it feels as if there are several separate plays here, layered on top of one another, stacked like so much Edinburgh city silt, one world piled upon the one beneath. But throughout it all, the time-shifts and the occasional thematic overload, Rashida – the Egyptian girl played with great grace by Colette Tchantcho – remains a calm, cool centre amidst the sandstorm.