The Tailor of Inverness

The extraordinary story of one intrepid Polish father, soldier, tailor arrives at the Lyric Theatre

This one man show written and performed by Matthew Zajac, based on the story of his father Mateusz, is a one-off. A sublime illustration of the form, The Tailor of Inverness won a slew of awards when it first appeared back in 2008 and is worthy of every one of them.

Zajac acts his father for the whole play: the people he lived with and loved in Poland, and all his other ports of call (which include, as part of an amazing story, Iran, Egypt, Italy and Scotland). The production uses its surroundings and minimalisms perfectly. Suits become people; a swirling portable wardrobe line becomes a series of unlawful train journeys; a mannequin becomes all his Polish girlfriends.

It begins with a proud, happy resident of Glasgow. Mateusz joins the British legion and goes to bingo, marrying ‘Mary from Maryville’, before getting the eponymous job. In one touching scene, the tailor carefully makes a new suit for his young son, the author and actor of this play. ‘For Matthew… for Matthew.'

The one-man banner is not strictly accurate. A violinist accompanies the performance with Polish melodies, conjuring up a vibe of the Eastern part of the continent. The production is further furnished with vivid maps of the said territories, the Urals pushing back in to the West, sometimes with the protagonist’s journey sketched in red (his travels are at times so convoluted this is more necessary than you might imagine).

The story of Zajac’s father is the story of Poland during the 20th century. In this way, The Tailor of Inverness is always moving but by no means sentimental. Zajac’s father grew up in Galicia, to the east of Poland, now part of Western Ukraine, and his extraordinary journey leads him to both German and Soviet army service during the Second World War.

Naturally a reflection of Poland’s experience at the hands of two juggernauts who invaded concurrently in 1939, this is a cause of great fury throughout to Mateusz, who explains how he comes to fight for two foreign armies he despises.

In a wonderful moment a Scottish, official-sounding voice is heard reciting a real letter from the UK jurisdiction Zajac came to rest in, outlining two contradictory versions of the story. One has him in the German forces for most of the war, the other spending his later years under Soviet sway.

Either could be true, but both can’t be – and we are reminded that history is a set of frequently competing narratives designed to obscure and place people at points and places they did not always occupy. We are left to make up our own minds.

Behind all, of course, is race. Scotland, the UK – for now at least – becomes Mateusz’s home, as it represents to so many from his part of the world, despite the best efforts of a vocal band of UKIP cranks. But towards the end we are told that his small home town back in Galicia had a large Jewish population. They were the skilled tailors who taught Mateusz his trade, so that when the Nazis came for the Jews they also carried out the murder of ‘a great and ancient profession’.

Mateusz survived because he was not Jewish, and in one of the play's best moments he rants about all his identities. ‘German!’ he puts the Wehrmacht jacket on. ‘Russian!’ pinning the Soviet badge on. ‘Polish!’ placing the red and white armband on the right, before the blue and yellow ‘Ukranian!’ goes on the other arm.

Then he pulls out a yellow badge, the sign Jews were instructed to wear from 1941 to highlight their ‘shameful’ racial status. He can’t wear it; he’s Poland itself – a predominantly Catholic country, which saw 90% of the pre-war Jewish population wiped out during the Holocaust, many collaborating with the slaughter in the anti-Semitic belief that ‘the Jews killed Christ’.

In 2002 and 2003, Zajac travelled to Poland to meet his family and discovered that he had important relatives he never even knew existed. He weaves this into the drama, playing real-life recordings and film, finding the ‘one building left’ – the Church, of course – where he imagines all his family, his ‘ghosts’, would have met before they were scattered by the war.

It is this combination of the historical detail and the authentic personal story which makes for such a powerful night of theatre. The Tailor of Inverness is not to be missed.

The Tailor of Inverness runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until June 21.