Out of the Forest Theatre Company have brought a blinder of a production to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. A musically theatrical re-contemplation of the rule of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, this is ambitious work. Written by Sasha Wilson & Joseph Cullen, and directed by Hannah Hauer-King it proves an assured and stylish piece of musically enhanced theatre. Bravo indeed to The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria.
Mixing undisputable fact, and reasonable supposition, the 5 strong cast first introduce us to Boris III by means of potted lineage, before following this more inoffensive of monarchs as he negotiates the onset of World War II. Caught between the rock of Nazi Germany, and the hard place of Communist Russia, the needs of the nation all but force allyship with Hitler’s Third Reich. Boris, however, has something resembling a plan. Bulgaria will ally with Germany in name, and then do everying possible to do…nothing. No Bulgarian will die in a war their nation had no part in starting, he declares, and sets out to make good on the promise.
Cullen is splenid in the central role, creating a flawed protagonist with both heroic, pragmatic, and fearful instincts. He is indeed a wily as a fox, but smart as he is, and empowered as he may seem, history seems determined to add his good intentions to the paving of that familiar road. Around him, the remaining, versatile quartet conspire to create a world rich in political schemers, noble bishops, and terrified, persecuted but resilient Jewish Bulgarians.
Laurence Boothman, Clare Fraenkel, and an extremely musical, and vocally gifted David Leopold, are individually vital, and in concert with Cullen, and a versatile Wilson, not a little sensational. Music is woven through the narrative, a thread tied at one end by Bulgarian folk traditions and at the other by Jewish lament. Due to Hauer-King’s sharp, and inventive choreography, the cast sweep in and out of formation, drama turning to ensemble playing and singing in the batting of an eye. Clever lighting, and swift scene changes also allow abrupt and demanding switches from absurdity to deadly seriousness.
Indeed, there is a constant sense of movement – though not rush – to this play, imparting the relentless momentum of an ever escalating war time situation. Though attention mainly focuses on Boris and his increasingly rebellious, Nazi sympathising ministers, well placed vignettes emphasise the desperate plight of his Jewish subjects, and the resistance they and allies are making to avert utter disaster. Despite such gravity of topic, there’s a knowing humour laced through the show, used to humanise the personae dramatis, to emphasise & satirise the worst instincts of humanity, and acknoweldge the absurdity of rule by right of birth. #
That said, time is made to mourn for the 11,343 who lost their lives in Nazi death camps, and to mark it with the gravest of respect.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that there is continuing debate over the virtue, or lack thereof of Boris III. This play ultimately takes a generous view of his time in office, viewing him as constantly playing for time and inaction in the face of Nazi demands. His ruling that the Jewish population be put to work building roads is a pragmatic step to stop their deportation and execution. When he learns of the 11,343 Jews who would be deported from Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot to their deaths, he is shown as unable to act due to Nazi control of these territories. When he finally says ‘no’ to Hitler, he does so at least partially through a sense of duty, and not only due to being shamed by Jewish friends, and the leadership of the Orthodox church.
Frankly, bravo Wilson & Cullen for having the guts to have, and stage a point of view; and if kindly, the play is not an unvarnished lionisation of Boris III. He may well instinctively revile Nazi ideology, but he is loathe to risk his position in open defiance, and only finally forced to act when activists refuse to let him look the other way. This is a sophisticated piece of political theatre, and even if you don’t agree with its take on history, the demand that society copy the Bulgarian model and defy authoritarian calls to otherisation and persecution is nobly intended.
An excess of needless exposition of the play’s themes come the finale, is really the only flaw separating ‘The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria’ from a full-house of stars. It is, otherwise, a first rate piece of theatre.
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria is an Out Of The Forest Theatre Company production.