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Review - The Brief & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria

Arcola Theatre

Playing until: 21st October 2023

Writer: Joseph Cullen

Director and Dramaturge: Hannah Hauer-King

Producers: Claire Gilbert and Lorra Videv for Out of the Forest Theatre

Review {AD-PR invite}

When Bulgaria was no longer able to remain neutral in World War II, Boris III (Joseph Cullen) sided with Nazi Germany in order to protect his people and also to reclaim the country’s lost land and former glory following World War I.

Boris III was shown to be reluctant in collaborating with Germany and was largely influenced by his Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov (Lawrence Boothman). Despite the seriousness and undeniable depressing undertone of the story, Cullen, who is also the writer, depicts a rather comical script and showcases the absurdity of the events that unravelled. The entire cast of this play are animated and highly expressive. While this is an effective way to charm the audiences and stimulating the humourous nature of the script, this somewhat undermines the sense of urgency of the situation, especially as the audience learns more about the policy to strip the Jews of their citizenship and imminent deportation. Although Cullen demonstrated different sides of Boris, comedy remains at the core of his character and it was difficult to accept his sincerity in the more serious and solemn moments of the story.

The story is based on the premise that Boris III saved the lives of nearly 50,000 Jews, but we must not neglect the fact that over 11,000 who were sent to their death as a result of Boris III’s government. However, as this play attempts to explain, Boris may not be entirely at fault.

Bogdan is depicted as a sneaky and manipulative individual, using whatever means necessary to hide the magnitude of the problem from Boris III and the impact on the Jewish people. In this production, Bogdan is depicted as exceptionally camp, to an almost unrealistic degree, in every situation, and as it stands, the anticipated villainous element is simply absent in this character. Without a strong antagonist, it becomes difficult to see how Boris is not as responsible as Bogdan for the deaths of so many Jews. All the key element of the characters are there to provide a balanced view of Boris III, but the written material and direction require strengthening to create a stronger contrast between Boris and his government.

The audience is also entertained by Jewish folk tunes throughout the play, this provides a level of ambience, but the actual benefits were minimal. From my perspective, some of the live music performances even distracted the audience from the play itself. The flute for example, is something that is quite difficult to combine with a moving character. Inherently, the breathing will be impacted, affecting the quality of the sound. Focusing on this, there isn’t a significant amount of flute solos in this production and the characters seem to use the instrument frequently as a mic. The precise rationale for adding the flute into this production just isn’t clear and indeed if it instrumental in any way.

The Brief life and mysterious death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria is as a comical take of a less well-known figure lost to time. While it has largely achieved what it sets out to do, providing a snippet of Boris III’s life in an entertaining way, it does not yet have the foundation and the sorely needed development to make history.

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