Finding a fresh page of World War II history is surely a challenge for any creative wanting to explore new ground. Often the same allied-focussed narratives are covered with varying degrees of success, and a whole lot of familiarity regardless of their importance and historical significance. Yet The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria transports us back to the war years, lifting the lid on a piece of history little known to Western audiences. Noting that British knowledge of the war is steeped in a Dad’s Army or Blackadder skewed patriotic nostalgia, theatre company Out Of The Forest share the story of heroism taking place in German allied Bulgaria under the kingship of the country’s penultimate monarch Boris III.
Written by and starring Sasha Wilson and Joseph Cullen, the Pleasance Dome based production centres on Bulgarian King Boris III, faced with the decision to pick a side during World War II. Ally with Britain and face invasion from encroaching Axis forces or back Germany and reclaim the territories of Thrace and Macedonia. Reluctantly siding with Hitler, Boris III is forced with embracing The Final Solution and deporting the Jewish population with zealous encouragement from his pro-German government officials. Attempting to stall, Boris faces pressure from both meddling German-forces/advisors and the pro-Jewish population – all looking for the King to take decisive action.
It is clear that a wealth of research has shaped The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, with the production framing this in a clear and accessible historical context of post Great War Europe. Yet this is not the re-telling of some weighty historical tome, instead a snapshot told through humour, music, and performances brimming with an infectious energy from its five cast members Joseph Cullen, Sasha Wilson, Laurence Boothman, Clare Fraenkel and David Leopold.
Truly longing for a Swiss-inspired neutrality, Boris III faces the shadow of his monarch father’s defeat as part of the Central Powers in World War 1, a pressure that leads to him signing with the Axis Powers. Yet Boris III does not side with the Nazis morally with their genocidal treatment of the Jews at odds with Boris III’s pro-Jewish stance. Cullen does an impressive job at capturing Boris III as a man struck between a rock and a hard place, torn by his commitment to take action to appease Hitler, but at odds with his personal morals. Exploring the sense of the monarch as a man treading a very narrow and precarious tightrope, Cullen is magnetic, channelling the production’s well-pitched humour amidst unnerving high stakes. The production is textured enough not to simply view Boris III’s actions with heroic rose-tinted glasses – under his leadership 11,343 Thracian and Macedonian were sent to their deaths and 20,000 Jewish Bulgarians were driven into labour camps.
Embedding musical numbers throughout ensures The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria is lively, whilst reflecting rich Bulgarian and Jewish culture and folklore. Live on-stage instrumentation from guitars and violins by the production’s cast further brings the tale to life, crafting the setting of 1940s Bulgaria. This instrumentation becomes an essential cog in the vibrant and fast-paced staging of the production, performers flow around the stage and audience utilising a small but effective array of props and staging measures to produce a kinetic, lively work.
Not simply a biographical tale of Boris III, but those of ordinary Bulgarians whose efforts lead to the saving of thousands of Jews. The piece intertwines stories of Liliana Panitsa, the secretary to the head of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs or Metropolitan Stefan, an orthodox Bulgarian church figurehead who performed a series of rush conversions to save the lives of the at risk Jewish population. The cast embark on multiple, crafting an impressive sense of characterisation and vibrancy in doing so – Boothman has particular fun instilling pro-Nazi Prime Minister Bogdan Filov with an air of villainous camp.
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria sheds light on a fascinating yet overlooked chapter in wartime history. Told with an insightful, fast-paced energy and character, this Out Of The Forest production is a sheer delight.
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria plays until Monday 28th of August at the Pleasance Dome. Book tickets here.