The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria

The play’s excessively long title has a folktale ring to it and with only limited knowledge of Balkan history sounds like a work of comic fantasy. In fact, the story that makes up The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, at the Arcola Theatre, is exactly what it purports to be.

Performed by an ensemble of energetic, witty and comic actor/musicians

Perhaps the monarch’s name makes it sound something of joke, but then they could have used his full name; Boris Klemens Robert Maria Pius Ludwig Stanislaus Xaver of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha-Koháry. That aside, be prepared for perhaps the most entertaining and amusing history lesson ever devised. (The boring version follows below.) Packed full of humour, David Leopold, Sasha Wilson (joint writer), Clare Fraenkel and Lawrence Boothma make for a show performed by an ensemble of energetic, witty and comic actor/musicians playing multiple roles headed by Joseph Cullen (joint writer) as the inexperienced ruler faced with situations for which he was ill-prepared. With folk music and songs that draw on both Bulgarian and Jewish traditions, with some sung in their original languages, there is a sense of the people and region involved.

Boris became king at the age of twenty-four, succeeding his father, Ferdinand I, who abdicated in 1918 following the country’s defeat in World War I, in which territories were ceded and it was forced to pay huge reparations. His early reign was plagued by internal feuds and numerous prime minister, the last of whom he sacked in 1935 after which his appointments effectively made him an absolute ruler. This meant that when the Second World War came he was the man who determined policy.

Initially he chose the path of neutrality, but Germany helped him to regain territories in the Treaty of Craiova and he approved laws designed to ‘protect’ his country from the influence of Jews and denied them citizenship. The idea of regaining lost territories appealed to Boris and in 1941 he joined the Axis, allowing the country to be used as a base for German troops to invade Yugoslavia and Greece, from which he gained yet more lands, but refused to join the war against the Soviet Union. It was from those territories that Jews were deported to Treblinka. Under public pressure and troubled by his compliance he saved some 50,000 Bulgarian Jews by sending them to labour camps around the country. His death in 1943 at the age of 49 continues to be riddled with speculation about poising by any one of several groups.

The complexities of the situations Boris finds himself are presented at speed under Director and Dramaturg Hannah Hauer-King but nevertheless suggest the difficulties he faces dealing with rival factions in the country and the largely pro-Nazi members of his wartime cabinet. His equivocations are laid bare and while he might have preferred to remain seated painfully on the fence we see how he was ultimately forced into compromise.

Out of the Forest Theatre have done an excellent job in researching this story of a leader, unknown to most people and largely forgotten by others, but whose life raises issues and dilemmas that still beset nations and politicians today.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

The untold but true tale of how Bulgaria saved its nearly 50,000 Jewish citizens during the war and then how the world forgot all about it. Set to live folk music, this “Hamilton-esque” (The Stage) story follows a bunch of underdogs as they stand up to Hitler. Bulgaria just told Hitler to bog off! ‘Whether a jazz fan, a history buff or just someone who loves gripping real-life stories, this is a must-see.’ (Kyril, Prince of Preslav, Boris III’s Grandson).

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