When Matthew Zajac was cast in a new play set to tour Sweden, Finland
and beyond, he had to learn a brand new language. Because the recent
tour of Hohaj, adapted from Swedish writer Elisabeth Rynell's novel by
Ellenor Lindgren, was not only set in an imaginary town in the far
north of Sweden. As produced by the Vasterbottensteatern repertory
theatre based in the town of Skelleftea, Hohaj might have seen Zajac
play an incoming drifter, but the play was nevertheless written and
subsequently needed to be performed in Swedish.
“They can understand what I'm saying,” Zajac jokes. “It was an
interesting challenge, having to learn a new language so quickly, but
fortunately they have seven or eight week rehearsal periods, which I
would say is too long compared to the two to three weeks we have here,
which is two short. But I actually needed those seven or eight weeks.
It's funny, because I don't really think the language itself is that
difficult. There are other languages which are much more difficult
grammatically than Swedish, but pronunciation and the rhythm and the
song of it, all the intonations and all of that, I found that much more
of a challenge than actually understanding the words.
“I was lucky, because I had a coach, and we would spend hours in my
dressing room tearing sentences apart, really getting the stresses
right. There were certain idioms I had to get my head round, where a
word can mean different things in different contexts, and that’s not
always obvious, but I got there. Also, it was very difficult to learn
conversational Swedish on a day to day basis, because everyone speaks
Hohaj is a tragic love story involving abuse, murder and a
distressingly dark back-story in an isolated community beside a forest.
In the book, Zajac's character was from the Faroe Islands. To
accommodate his Inverness accent, however, the stage version sees him
relocated to Orkney. Given everything Zajac has said about learning
Swedish, this is understandable. How an Edinburgh-based, Highland-born,
Bristol-educated actor who lived half his working life in London came
to be cast in a Swedish play being produced on native soil, however, is
a different matter.
The roots of Zajac's participation in Hohaj date back five years, when
the Highlands and Islands Theatre Network organised an exchange visit
between Dogstar, the company of which Zajac is co-artistic director of,
and two theatres in Vasterbotten. Ten Swedes visited the Highlands,
while Zajac and nine other Highland-based practitioners visited Sweden
to explore possible collaborations.
One of the things that came out of this was a production of an
English-language version of Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken.
Co-produced by Vasterbottensteatern, Sweden's national touring company,
Riksteatern, currently run by Olivier Award winning British actress,
Josette Bushell-Mingo, and the Unity Theatre Liverpool, When We Dead
Awaken saw Zajac cast alongside two other British actors and two Swedes.
With Vasterbottensteatern's home town of Skelleftea developing itself
as the country's leading centre of story-telling, Zajac subsequently
toured his acclaimed one-man show, The Tailor of Inverness, to Umea
University as part of the inaugural Skelleftea Storytelling Festival in
2009. It was through connecting with Lindgren and other personnel
connected with Vasterbottensteatern that the idea of Hohaj was born.
The original plan was for it to be a co-production between
Vasterbottensteatern and Dogstar, and to tour both countries. With
Scottish funding not forthcoming, however, those plans were put on ice.
All parties involved in Hohaj were informed of this as Dogstar began
rehearsals for a Scottish tour of another Swedish adaptation. Sweetness
was a stage version of Vasterbotten-based novelist Torgny Lindgren's
epic by Scots writer Kevin MacNeill.
“For a long time we didn't know whether it was going to happen,” says
Zajac, “and in the end I was funded to go out to Sweden and to be able
to live there while we were rehearsing, and we're still hoping to bring
the show to Scotland at some point.”
Of the play itself, Zajac says that “It's quite poetic. There's a lot
of story-telling in it, and I don't think it's typical of Swedish
theatre. For one thing, there isn't that much Swedish drama that's
written specifically about the far north of the country. It's very
sparsely populated. The whole country is. It's the same size of
Britain, but it only has about a million people in it, so there's vast
expanses of nothingness.
“In a way the north of Sweden is viewed in much the same way as the
north of Scotland by the more metropolitan parts of both countries.
There's a certain amount of uncertainty about it. People can admire the
beauty of the Highlands, but they don't necessarily know much about
This may go some way to explaining what looks set to be an ongoing
artistic relationship which has already forged between Dogstar and
“There's been a bit of a Swedish theme developing over the last few
years,” Zajac observes. “There's obviously a big Scottish connection
between Scandinavia and Scotland anyway, but one of the visions of
[Caithness-born playwright and founder of Grey Coast theatre] George
Gunn, who I worked with a lot in the 1990s, was to very much connect
with Scandinavia and Iceland. Coming from Caithness and being the man
he is, he's bristling with knowledge about the history and the
connections between Norway and Scotland in particular. A lot of people
sympathised with that, and that's why the initial exchange trip
happened, so George's vision is bearing fruit.”
For the immediate future, Zajac will be touring with Dogstar again in
The Captain's Collection, a revival of one of the company's earliest
shows. It won't be too long, however, before he revisits Hohaj once
more. In 2012 the show will tour to Stockholm in Sweden's metropolitan
heart, and later to Finland.
“I don't think they'll think I'm a Swedish actor,” Zajac says of how
audiences might perceive his presence in Hohaj, “and if they do they
only have to look at my name in the programme to know I'm not. But that
doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in this character,
and that he's not someone who's just learnt the language the week
the Herald, December 27th 2011