BLOG Katya Johnson

NWR Issue 110

The Tailor of Inverness at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

‘The Tailor of Inverness’ is a one-man play written by Matthew Zajac, who is also the star, and directed by Ben Harrison. Gavin Marwick is responsible for violin accompaniment at Welsh and English venues while its performance is by Jonny Hardie at Scottish venues. Costume and set design by Ali Maclaurin.

The play was preformed at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 26 February. Future current performances are at Nottingham Playhouse on 18 and 19 March, Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Manchester on 20 March, and Chat’s Palace in London on 23 and 24 March.

Matthew Zajac’s stunning performance in the multi-award winning production, ‘The Tailor of Inverness’, took Aberystwyth Arts Centre by storm. First premièring at the Assembly Rooms during the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Zajac’s spellbinding one-man show is a deeply moving account of his father’s experience of loss and displacement in Europe during the Second World War.

Based on actor Matthew Zajac’s autobiographical book of the same name, the play tells two stories: the first, recounted in first person, is that of the author as soldier, war refugee and tailor, following his relocation to Inverness in 1948. The second, more documentary-styled thread of the production focuses on the history of the tailor story’s reception as told by his son. In this phase, Zajac Jr’s determination to reclaim his past and return to his roots leads him to discover that his background is far more complicated than his father had presented it.

Held together by the masterful metaphor of the tailor – the audience is gradually reminded that the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ have the same Latin root. In this case, a text is not only something that can be created but also fabricated. The further the audience is embroiled in the story – told by an eccentric and fastidious Pole with Scottish inflections – the more we are reminded of the reasons why a Jewish Pole from the multiethnic province of Galicia in Eastern Poland might want to forget who he was or what really happened to him during the war.

The play is as much about the brutality and horror of real history and the trauma engendered by conflict as it is about how we suppress our personal histories and redefine them for those we love. It reveals the terrible, mixed legacy of the war that displaced the population of Central Europe and led to some of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century. The journey of the tailor himself – enlisted into a Polish regiment, deported to the Russian Gulag and conscripted to fight in north Africa on behalf of the British Army before making his way to Scotland – not only illustrates the absurd and amorphous nature of combat but also its cost in terms of human life and suffering, as well as the true price of survival.

‘The Tailor of Inverness’ is woven through fragments of song, poetry, reminiscence and documentary storytelling. A very beautiful violin accompaniment, provided by Gavin Marwick, added more texture to the play, and a projector gave the audience English translations of Polish and other languages. The play’s clarity of concept was also ingenuously echoed through the set and costume design provided by Ali Maclaurin; suits hanging on a clothing rail were not just stage props but used like puppets – as personifications of people and place. It was especially gripping to watch Zajac switch between this team of voices and suit jackets: impersonating his Polish-Scottish father and the Scottish son. That the production was a solo show with multiple characters was one of its strengths – a powerful metaphor of how we can embody our own histories as well as that of our parents. Overall this was a fabulous example of how a small-scale show can encompass universal themes without being sentimental or reductive, thus fulfilling director Ben Harrison’s pledge to ‘make sure that the personal [became] a universal story about migration, loss and survival.’

Katya Johnson is a blogger in residence for New Welsh Review and is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.


previous blog: Efforts and Ideals: Prints of the First World War
next blog: Scratch Night at Aberystwyth Arts Centre


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