The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III King of Bulgaria: Part the First, Vault Festival

Review by Melinda Haunton

Boris III. You remember, that Boris. No, definitely not that Boris. Surely we’ve all seen enough World War Two history to know the actual head of state of one of the European powers? At least his name? Honestly, I didn’t, and I bet you don’t either. Which is why this hour-long gallop through Boris’s wartime life is quite the challenge for Out of the Forest.

There’s a lot to bring us up to speed on, and it’s tackled with vim from the first entry of the five-person cast, singing the Bulgarian national anthem. The wrong anthem, as we’re told – it dates from 1947, but it’s much better than the previous one, so they’re using it. There’s a lot of this fourth-wall-breaking narrative throughout, and it’s welcome, keeping information flowing but with plenty of laughs. We’re almost set up for an hour of chuckleworthy historical interest, when the Holocaust drops into the picture, and the stakes are raised in an instant.

It takes some nerve to centre your story on a monarch who opted for alliance with Nazi Germany, however few alternatives he had. This largely biographical production manages to make Boris III sympathetic, to a point. In part that’s thanks to the tremendously personable Joseph Cullen, playing Boris as warm, fallible, a little bit silly, and with a genuinely terrible virabhadrasana 2 (for this is my dream: a Balkan monarch who’s well into yoga – apparently he has a lot of tension in his shoulders, for some reason possibly connected to a world war, who knows?). Boris is shown making impossible choices, spinning out time by pretending to cooperate with antisemitism while delaying action, and ultimately saving tens of thousands of Bulgarian Jews from deportation through some kind of deal thrashed out in Berlin in 1943. He’s a good guy, right? “I did what I could,” he concludes. “Did you?” is the response. We may be tempted to go easy. But I imagine 11,343 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia would say not, since they were deported to Treblinka on Boris’s watch. Except they won’t, because only twelve survived. Kudos to the production for not going easy on this. It is what it is: a horror and a tragedy.

Early on, we’re told we’ll be seeing some awful people, but that this isn’t their story – it’s the story of those who resisted them. So this isn’t all about Boris by any means. The staging works well to emphasise this, set up as theatre in the round with the cast often spread in all four corners, acting as chorus and musicians as well as a wonderful variety of supporting parts. The ensemble (Kara Taylor Alberts, David Leopold, Joseph Prowen, Sasha Wilson) doesn’t have a false note, and there’s some neat inventive costuming and props. Even the unavoidable scene where Boris confronts Hitler manages not to fall into cliché, quite the achievement.

The programme notes add that the company feel an hour isn’t enough time to tell the full story, and hope to turn it into a two act show. I believe there’s far more to say, particularly the wider picture of Bulgarian life in wartime, and I know the frustration of doing piles of research that don’t make it into a final production. That said, I thought the tightness of this piece worked well. The play disavows Boris as the hero, taking time to highlight individual Bulgarians who resisted Jewish deportations. But at the same time, Boris functions as the pivot for the story, the man who sees what is happening and tries to find ways out of it. Sometimes it’s easier to care about one man than thousands, and for the duration of one hour, I cared about Boris III.

The Brief Life… was on at Vault Festival 11-15 March 2020

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