This September, the Vancouver Fringe Festival features a new one-woman show called An Arrangement of Shoes. The play, written by Abishek Majumdar, focuses on a family portrait within an Indian railway colony during the First Gulf War. Brought over from the United Kingdom, An Arrangement of Shoes makes its first North American premiere in Vancouver this month. I had the chance to interview Radhika Aggarwal, who plays the part of Rukhsar in this solo performance. She speaks on the devising process that occurred with Maya Foa along with Majumdar’s script:
“We were very lucky to come across what I find an ultra-beautiful script,” Aggarwal said. “Essentially the script was written as this story set in the railway colony but it was all up to the theatre makers to decide how they would use it and Abishek, the writer, was very open.”
She explains that the script can be formed in many different ways. Aggarwal and Foa’s devising process first began in 2010. However, they brought the play back this year as it felt relevant again. It also fit perfectly into Tara Theatre’s 70/70 series in London, which marks the 70th year since partition.
She delves more into the story that this play aims to expand on while bringing up the kind of religious and political subject matter influencing the main character’s life.
“The main storyteller, a lady called Rukhsar is telling her family history and her motive for doing this is bereavement, I suppose. Her grandfather’s just died and so they’re preparing for his funeral and her grandfather was a very god-fearing and religious character. They’re a Muslim family and they’re living in a predominantly Hindu area and there wasn’t a mosque at the time when they moved to this railway.”
She explains how the shoes in this story serve as a storytelling device, symbolizing her character’s grandfather’s devotion to the people in the Indian railway colony. Deciding to take a life of service by his wife’s suggestion, Rukhsar’s grandfather decides to offer some service at the local Hindu temple and also take shoes from it. The shoes then become a device for constructing history and sharing the memories of history. The family portrait described in this play is also affected by the political climate at the time.
“It becomes a bit of a satirical take on war and foreign policy in general; you know, the wide reaching effects of war in places that you might not imagine. India wasn’t directly involved but there were so many migrant workers from the Gulf at that time. So many families were affected through the raids when there was shelling and bombing.”
Themes, such as Hindu-Muslim relations and the effects of war in India, are weaved in a subtle way throughout the play, as Aggarwal then describes.
“It’s not dealt with in a very heavy handed way,” she says. “It just gives a sense of who was the majority and who would have to answer questions if things started to go in a certain way.”
She describes these relevant political threads throughout the play as a way to give us an idea of “the other” and how we include or exclude from one another.
This will also be the first time that a North American audience will be presented with this play. It has previously been performed in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“Weirdly, Vancouver was actually the first set of dates I actually booked for any of it, Aggarwal says. “I just thought Vancouver would be the perfect city because it’s got so many groups of people living here. And the theatre scene seems to be quite a strong one and there’s so much going on.”
Aggarwal initially was a mathematics teacher in Oxford and eventually left teaching to co-produce An Arrangement of Shoes along with Tara Arts Theatre Company in London, along with performing it for the Fringe.
“I read the play and it was absolutely beautiful,” Aggarwal describes. “So we said let’s workshop it and let’s see; let’s play a bit with it. So we just sort of had a few evening sessions and thought ‘This is gorgeous, we have to do something with it.’”
The play has also since been performed in India as a two-person show by other theatre makers. This show stands as a solo show along with new sorts of rules that Foa and Aggarwal incorporate into the piece.
“All the shoes in the shoe rack; it became almost mathematical in the way we arranged them,” she says.
She speaks on how, as people, we use mathematics and statistics to reassure ourselves. This became another theme that they chose to incorporate into the play through the shoe props.
“I suppose in a way I relate to finding the truth in the story we’re there to tell and that responsibility to tell that story,” she says as she speaks on the kinds of universal truths within An Arrangement of Shoes. “I guess that’s quite powerful as well: the theatre and how it humanizes things that we might not quite have in our experience.”
An Arrangement of Shoes runs from September 7-17 as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.
Tickets: $ 7-14 | Location: Arts Umbrella | Website