The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria is a show vying for both the ‘longest’ and ‘oddest’ title trophies at this year’s Fringe.
Based on a true story, almost everything in the play really happened. Although some specific moments have had to be imagined due to a lack of records. The factual elements have also had creative licence applied, with timelines adjusted for dramatic purposes. If this wasn’t all true, you would think it was all too far-fetched. The play shows that, as ever, the truth is stranger than fiction.
Boris is the King of Bulgaria – albeit, there’s not a drop of Bulgarian blood in his body. His father was chosen to be King in the late 19th century, as all of Bulgaria’s actual Royal Family had died.
Boris has bad hair and a slightly messy personal life. Aside from that, he’s beloved by the people and is determined to regain the land that was ceded by Bulgaria after the end of World War One.
These attempts to infer similarities between Bulgaria’s Boris, and the UK’s, are soon left behind. The play doesn’t need it as there’s enough to intrigue here for the show to stand on its own merits.
In the show, the year is 1943, Bulgaria has managed to stay out of World War Two so far. However, pressure is coming from both the Allied and Axis Powers to pick a side.
Facing pressure from his political advisers, as well as his wife (an Italian with links to Mussolini), and the people’s desire to avoid anything to do with the Turks, who they hate, Boris is desperate to avoid any Bulgarian blood being spilt.
Eventually persuaded that the lost land can only be returned by the Nazis, Boris decides to side with Germany. He does some seemingly clever political manoeuvres however, it’s revealed that Boris is being undermined by his own politicians.
Along with trying to ensure that none of his citizens must fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, Boris is anxious to protect the 50,000 Jews who live in his country. The Final Solution is all too well known already, and Boris recognises the genocide occurring outside his borders.
Played mostly for laughs, this makes the serious moments hit even harder, and one, in particular, is presented incredibly poignantly.
Performed with a cast of five, Joseph Cullen as Boris is the only person who only plays one role. The remaining four cast members: Sasha Wilson; Laurence Boothman; Clare Fraenkel, and; David Leopold all multi-role, and also play a range of instruments.
The show makes clever use of folk music, some Bulgarian in origin, to underscore the story.
This production has been developed in collaboration with the Bulgarian Ambassador to the UK, and the grandson of Boris III. It, therefore, goes beyond the bare bones of the historical facts to present the real human stories behind the powerful and political figureheads.
This is an essential piece of theatre. The show is filled with joy and laughter, which also tells of the devastating consequences of standing up to oppression and oppressors.
It is also a story of hope. It shows of the need to know the people whose lives you wield power over.
Entertaining, educational and informative, this is everything a piece of theatre should be.
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria continues at the Edinburgh Fringe until 28th August .
Feature Image Credit: Out of the Forest theatre