The Scotsman Sessions #99: Matthew Zajac
The Tailor of Inverness, written and performed by Matthew Zajac for his own Dogstar Theatre Company, is one of the most enduring shows in the current Scottish theatre repertoire; and its staying-power is hardly surprising, given the huge strength and immense, wide-ranging resonance of the story it tells. First seen on stage in 2008 - in a superb small-scale touring production by Ben Harrison of Grid Iron, with design and lighting by Ali Maclaurin and Kai Fischer, and live fiddle music by Jonny Hardie and Gavin Marwick - the play gradually unravels the life-story of Matthew Zajac’s father, also called Matthew, who was born in the 1920s in a village in part of eastern Poland that was absorbed into Ukraine after the Second World War, and who finds his young life disrupted by the outbreak of war.
The story told by Matthew’s father himself was a relatively simple one; he was caught up in the war, but eventually managed to make his way to the Middle East where he joined the Allied forces, fought his way up through Italy with British units, and, after the war, joined his brother in Glasgow - where he married his Scottish wife Mary - before finally deciding to set up his own successful tailoring business in Inverness.
After his father’s death, though, Matthew Zajac became increasingly curious about his Polish/Ukrainian family; and gradually, a much more complex story began to emerge, of a desperate struggle for survival in the face of advancing Nazi forces, and of rapidly switching loyalties in the terrifying early days of the war. And not only was Zajac’s father’s military history more complex than he had ever acknowledged; there was also a hidden personal story, of young wife and baby daughter abandoned in Poland as war took hold, and of an older half-sister that Zajac never knew he had.
Told through a thrilling mixture of words (Polish and English), music, movement and visual imagery, The Tailor of Inverness therefore offers a uniquely powerful double narrative, both of Matthew Zajac senior’s traumatic journey through a wartime world in flames, and of the younger Matthew’s searching and sometimes painful quest for the truth about the father he thought he knew. And in times of renewed conflict and division, with individuals and families once again forced to travel the world in search of peaceful new lives, the show has resonated deeply with audiences around the world, appearing across the UK, and in Australia, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. In 2015 it enjoyed a hugely successful run at the Brits Off Broadway Festival in New York, receiving rave reviews from both critics and audiences; and in 2013, it visited Poland and Ukraine, in a historic return to the places where the story began.
Dogstar, founded in Inverness in 1998, is one of the great survivors of Scotland’s touring theatre scene, with a range of brave and hard-hitting shows in its repertoire, including Factor 9 (2014), Mungo Park (2016), and memorably off-the-wall climate-catastrophe musical Let’s Inherit The Earth (2018). The Tailor of Inverness, though, is by far the most successful show Dogstar has ever produced. Here, in this brief extract for The Scotsman Sessions, Matthew Zajac offers a powerful insight into the good-humoured, businesslike persona his father created for himself in his new life in postwar Scotland, as well as fleeting glimpses, in music and song, of the much more troubled history his father had tried to leave behind; a history which is explored so memorably in the full-length filmed version of The Tailor of Inverness now available online at Dogstar’s own website, along with Circling The Fox, a powerful documentary about the making of this most remarkable show.
Watch The Tailor Inverness and other work by Dogstar at http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk
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