FringeReview UK 2023
Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria
Laurence Boothman Joseph Cullen Clare Fraenkel David Leopold Sasha Wilson
Venue: Arcola Theatre Studio 1
Festival: FringeReview UK
We could, as Gandhi’s assassin tells us (at the National) look him up in Wikipedia and not get the whole story. Acclaimed at Edinburgh Fringe, and now transferring to the Arcola’s Studio 1, Sasha Wilson’s and Joseph Cullen’s Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III is Fringe-historical gold, which means very good indeed. It doesn’t mean Copenhagen, with Frayn’s subtle collisions and collusions. It’s a different, desperately joyous animal that signs its truth and shames the world.
Written by Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson Directed and dramaturged by Hannah Hauer-King, Produced by Claire Gilbert, Lighting Designer Will Alder, Set Sorcha Corcoran, Costume Designer Helen Stewart, Assistant Producer Lorra Videv
Till October 21st
We could, as Gandhi’s assassin tells us (at the National) look him up in Wikipedia and not get the whole story. Acclaimed at Edinburgh Fringe, and now transferring to the Arcola’s Studio 1, Sasha Wilson’s and Joseph Cullen’s Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III proclaims “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.”
Boris III’s now as before directed and dramaturged by Hannah Hauer-King: whose The Swell by Isley Lynn at the Orange Tree in June/July is easily one of the year’s best. This five-hander includes the writers who all perform and sing. To claim it’s set to live folk music is true up to a point. What we have is a true fringe show, effortlessly transposed to the Arcola, bursting with 80 minute of storytelling, multi-roling, a tiny space and a little theatre business with the audience.
Sorcha Corcoran’s set consists of raised puce steps and throne, a few props like a box of water; all that’s needed. That’s how you stand up to Hitler, which is what Boris did. Sideways. Will Alder’s lighting is neatly pointed and Helen Stewart’s costumes – a silent Hitler uniform in off-the-peg dictator-style – constitute the wittiest of a wicked critique of flummery and livery. There’s no ceremony of innocence, rather of a twittering king with sudden shafts of the Pimpernel about him.
Both Bulgarian and Jewish folk music (wish we had a list) does percolate its way through the performances. There’s violin (Lawrence Boothman, mainly oleaginous Nazi-loving First Minister). The flute’s performed by Wilson playing the SS and Lily, an insider. Guitars are contrasted in size and personnel: David Leopold, both goofy twit and vicious Nazi enforcer who happens to be part-Jewish; and Clare Fraenkel who mainly plays the Jewish musician contact to Lily at court.
Still, I never knew Woodie Guthrie’s ‘This Land’ was originally Bulgarian and the Andrews Sisters filched ‘Dear Mr Shane’ too. Of course it’s wickedly pointed stuff. Archbishop (actually Monsigneur, but who cares, it’s the hat) Andrew does a lot singing about laying your sin in Jesus.
It’s not about the king either, not entirely. How one man bumbles to greatness by not having Johnson crushed on him as a patronymic, but still playing the wily idiot (happily all parallels left for inference). Though Boris III might have had greatness thrust upon him too. He almost redeems the name from Johnson and Godunov. (There’s a great Bulgarian composer Boris Vladigerov, but he’s not in the story.)
Cullen nicely judges what he and Wilson have made of Boris. Cullen has a neat way of hesitating dislike and even more dodging courage till it finds him out. A shrewd, partly timorous but principled man who wants the best for all his people, no exceptions. He’s opposed by his first minister and others, but supported elsewhere, notably – though he doesn’t realise this for a long time – the Bulgarian people themselves.
As Wilson and Cullen tell it, Boris is boxed in to finally sign the Nazi alliance and finally too the anti-Jewish laws and to broadcast anti-Semitic tropes at least once. Boris doubled down on secret alliances with people like Archbishop Andrew he advised to publicly disown him, just as he collaborated not with Nazis, but Andrew and the rest.
Boris agonises over his failures (to stop 11,343 Macedonian Jews from being sent to Treblinka, of whom only 12 survived). And he’s continually asking support of his Italian wife, played by Wilson. And the irony as Boris reminds us, and everyone reminds him, is that he’s not Bulgarian at all. Succeeding his father who abdicated on losing chunks of Bulgaria in WW1, he’s of every royal family but the extinct Bulgar one.
The storytelling is fast-paced and factual, as well as horribly good fun. Tossed between speakers slipping in and out of SS leather coats and scarlet liveries (all save Boris in his pomp) is of course tragedy-as-farce, the conniving of Boris through the Jewish court musician and Lily to locate the secret depot where 20,000 Jews are to be deported.
Ultimately he can only save 8.000 at that point with the results we know. This almost breaks this iteration of Boris and in truth the historical figure certainly exerted himself. Moving Jews to build roads nominally for the Wermacht to ride through the impossible terrain, that number included all Jews in Bulgaria that we know of. Much, as the actor/writers tell us, is conjecture, especially that last interview with Hitler and its denouement. The clue’s in the title they tell us. How?
If you have any interest in this (and few amongst us would admit to not) you’ll need to see this urgent, horribly topical and revisionist historical tale if you can get to Dalston. The almost klezmer/folk-like telling is absolutely right for this approach, this brevity (and would you want two hours on relatively scant material?) as so much, we’re again reminded, has been almost erased.
The cast from multi-coated and steely Wilson and Cullen’s Boris, the horribly sibilant Boothman, spirited appealing Fraenkel, and blokey barbarous Leopold, are all exemplary. They move, even breathe as one: timing’s in the flash of an eye.
This is fringe-historical gold, which means very good indeed. It doesn’t mean Copenhagen, with Frayn’s subtle collisions and collusions. It’s a different, desperately joyous animal that signs its truth and shames the world. Do see it.