The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria: an original take on a difficult topic

The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, at the Arcola
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, at the Arcola - Will Alder

“I saved nearly 50,000 lives and you’ve never bloody heard of me,” Boris III laments in the opening moments of this surprising historical drama about the wartime monarch. The premise of Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson’s revisionist play is certainly an intriguing one. While the Second World War is a subject that is frequently theatrically revisited and rehashed, how many are in fact familiar with the story of Bulgaria’s king?

It also challenges binary narratives about the war that we in the West hold dear. While the real-life Boris sided with Hitler’s Germany to regain Bulgaria’s lost territories, he still managed to prevent the country’s Jewish communities from being sent to concentration camps. Described by Hitler as a “wily fox”, the king infuriated the Nazi leader in their final meeting by demanding that Bulgaria keep its Jewish population for hard labour. Two weeks later, Boris died in mysterious circumstances from suspected poisoning.

Out of the Forest’s galloping 80-minute production whips through these events at breakneck speed, and provides its own interpretation of them (a sympathetic Boris uses his road-building project as an excuse to save the Jews from deportation). Recently a sell-out hit at the Fringe and backed by Boris’s grandson Prince Cyril, the drama has been accused by some historians of “rewriting history” to perpetrate a myth about Bulgaria’s heroics.

In Hannah Hauer-King’s staging, Cullen plays Boris as a reluctant, decision-averse king who engages in a cat-and-mouse game with Hitler to avoid imposing restrictions against his Jewish citizens. Initially, his dithering is played for laughs but, when he is literally backed into a corner by the rest of the five-strong ensemble and forced to strip Jewish Bulgarians of their citizenship, he morphs into a tortured figure who repeatedly asks audience members: “What would you do?” It’s a thought-provoking performance that is somewhat undercut by the antic caricatures of the anti-Semitic figures around him, which aim to be satirical but end up feeling tonally jarring.

This production tries to address the complexities of Bulgaria’s history as much as it can in its short runtime. We are introduced to key players such as Liliana Panitsa, the secretary to the Commissar for Jewish Affairs, who bravely warned Jewish communities about deportation plans. And nor does the script shy away from the hard-hitting reality that 11,000 Jews from the regained Bulgarian territories were, in fact, sent to concentration camps.

The writers have clearly done their homework, but overpacking this drama with fun – yet unnecessary – historical facts does it no favours and puts you in mind of a Horrible Histories special, while clumsy asides to the audience are used to shoehorn in extra details. Still, this is an ambitious and inventive outing for a fledgling company.

Until Oct 21. Tickets:

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