The Tailor of Inverness Summerhall

This is the first time I’ve been to Summerhall, the relatively new (2011) Arts venue on the site of the old Dick Vet College in Edinburgh. It is an impressive looking setup and the place was buzzing the night I was there. My only gripe about the theatre space in the main theatre is that it is all on one level and if you don’t get there early to get a seat near the front, the view of the stage is limited.

The Tailor of Inverness is a one man play written and performed by Matthew Zajac and was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 where it won a Scotsman Fringe First Award. It has subsequently toured the UK and abroad, winning further acclaim for Zajac and Dogstar Theatre Company of Inverness. It tells the story of Zajac’s father, also Matthew or Mateusz, a tailor from Poland who settled in Scotland after the second world war. After his father’s death, Zajac set out to discover the full story of his background and journey from Poland and in the course of that, he made some surprising discoveries. As well as writing a book about his experiences, Zajac decided to also write a dramatization and the end result is a vivid and moving tribute to his father and those countless others who were separated from their families and homelands after the war.

The set is a tailor’s workshop with a workbench to one side, a tailors dummy on the other, a clothes rail on which hang some military jackets and two white shirts, and a ghostly backdrop of clothes on the wall with a child’s blue dress among the shirts. The significance of the dress becomes clear at the end as the pieces of the story are gradually uncovered.

All the props are used to good effect in the storytelling – the dummy becomes his sweetheart partnering him in a dance, the clothes rail becomes a train, the jackets transform him into a Polish, Russian, German soldier. Projections onto the back wall provide further atmosphere – falling snow, rail tracks, the words of a poem and also information – maps charting the different versions of Mateusz’s journey, video footage and interviews with Zajac’s Polish relatives and, importantly, subtitles as there is some dialogue in Polish/Russian/German.

Violinist Jonny Hardie sits on stage and provides atmospheric music and sound effects throughout. The story is told using flashbacks to various points in Mateusz’s life and slowly we come to learn the true version of events and the heartbreaking choices he had to make in deciding to make his new life in the West. The play is clearly a labour of love and also a personal journey of self-discovery for Matthew Zajac but it also covers universal themes of identity, separation and loss. Very informative as well as entertaining.

Irene Brownlee