Writers: Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson
Director: Hannah Hauer-King
Is history written by the winners, and how do we really know what happened behind closed doors? Out of the Forest Theatre brings its acclaimed Edinburgh show to London’s Arcola Theatre, exploring the quiet heroism of Bulgaria’s King Boris III who they credit with saving 50,000 Jews during the Second World War by standing up to Hitler personally. This is a largely jaunty tale about a dark period in European history and while perhaps The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria doesn’t engage enough with the long indecision of the monarch, the cartoon style and entertaining approach provides an enjoyable race through pivotal events.
At the start of the Second World War, the Bulgarian ruler is pressured into accepting a protection racket arrangement with the Nazi government whose influence and span of control easily reaches their borders. With old enemy Russia the only alternative, King Boris signs with Germany and before long his country is subject to Nazo dictates and expectations to join their war effort in return for reclaimed lands. But the order to strip Bulgarian Jews of their citizenship becomes the final straw.
Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson’s play neatly encapsulates the pressures placed on Boris as the Bulgarian nation is manoeuvred into a corner. The political and military jeopardy is clear, if a little repetitive, while Boris’s own government -particularly his Prime Minster and Home Secretary – create a culture of collusion that puts the unhappy monarch in an increasingly powerless position. And the shifting narrative is well managed, sketching out chronology of the war fairly well, allowing the audience to keep track of the changing circumstances as Nazi power rises and falls.
There is something of The Death of Stalin and Peter Morgan’s Patriots in the tone and shape of Cullen and Wilson’s writing, broadly comic and satirical characterisation given a conversational and accessible style. Yet it also manages the grave moments well, cutting through the play as the full implications for the Jewish population become known and are treated with seriousness and sensitivity. Meanwhile, the incorporation of folk music aids the emotional transitions within this performance.
Cullen plays Boris as a good man torn between terrible options, while the supporting cast of Wilson, David Leopold, Clare Fraenkel and Lawrence Boothman provide multiple colourful and entertaining characters, yet Boris himself feels unreachable. The show argues that his public speeches in favour of Hitler and his Anti-Semitic policies hid the King’s true feelings and much conflicted conscience. At the start there is a flicker of Henry V pondering the weight of war, but Cullen and Wilson do not return to this idea as the consequences of the war play out.
Boris agonises but goes along with it for most of the 80-minute running time building to a final confrontation with Hitler, when Nazi power was rapidly declining, which imagines what was said. But somehow this scene is out of place and should be the defining purpose of the show. What happened in that room, Cullen and Wilson suggest, saved 50,000 Bulgarian Jews but also resulted in the King’s untimely death. Starting the show with that scene and using it to question Boris’s public and private heroism would create a much stronger dynamic. Why has Boris III been forgotten by history and what does his brief life and mysterious death really tell us about the sacrifices his country made to save its people?
Runs until 21 October 2023