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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

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

Out Of The Forest Theatre

Genre: Comedic, Historical, Music, Theatre

Venue: Pleasance Dome - Queen Dome


Low Down

King Boris of Bulgaria stands up to Hitler, accompanied by Bulgarian and Jewish folk music.


Before I can even get to describing this simply superb production, it is hugely beneficial to contextualise.

The roots of World War 2 can be traced back to the end of World War 1. When the guns finally fell silent, those on the losing side ceded territory, had their armies forcibly reduced and were burdened with devastating financial reparations. But we’re not talking about Germany now, this is Bulgaria and its relatively unknown part in twentieth century European history.

Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers during World War 1 and when they were defeated, such was the disaster that the King abdicated, with his son, our protagonist Boris III, assuming the throne. When World War 2 broke out, Bulgaria warily remained neutral, though had aspirations of regaining lost territory. They sought to do so without conflict nor joining Hitler’s rampage through Europe – a tall order.

Increasingly under pressure to pick a side, they were pretty much backed into the corner of allying themselves with the Nazis, though still refused to send troops to the Russian front. The Nazis, their influence inexorably growing, exerted unbearable pressure on the Bulgarians to join their ideological campaign against the Jews, which sat badly with Boris. He seemingly could do little to save the 11,000+ Jews transported from newly reclaimed territory (Croatia and Macedonia), but, taking heart from mass demonstrations, and with the creative assistance of the church, prevaricates and procrastinates, provoking the increasing impatience of Germany. He is summoned to meet Hitler and refuses to transport his citizens, saving an estimated 50,000 lives. He died shortly after the meeting, with suspicions rife that he was poisoned, provoking an outpouring of domestic grief. The story was largely buried after the Soviets over-ran Bulgaria towards the end of World War 2, abolishing the monarchy, with half a century of communism to follow.

History lesson over. Let’s get to the show, which is an unreserved joy.

We enter the three-quarters round auditorium to find a throne on a platform with two further stands central and centre downstage. A musical quartet enter, followed by Boris (Joseph Cullen). The quartet (Clare Fraenkel, David Leopold, Lawrence Boothman and Sasha Wilson) intermittently sing Bulgarian and Jewish folk songs, while assuming an ensemble of characters central to the tale, at times providing musical backdrops to the unfolding drama. The quartet, playing a variety of instruments, move the narrative seamlessly and fluidly, almost troubadour style and are pitch perfect. The direction (Hannah Hauer-King) is considered and imaginative, the pace relentless as the 70 minutes flash before the audience. The use of folk music as part of the narrative not only engenders aspects of the dual cultural heritage, it is suggestive of a lament for the tumultuous events being witnessed. And it’s charming. The acting is strong, Cullen’s rendition of heavy is the head that wears the crown being adept, relationships and inter-plays outstanding and, when the cast occasionally break the fourth wall, the production is somehow further elevated.

Holocaust, folk singing, regicide – if it all sounds a bit downbeat, here’s a twist : this show is at times achingly funny. The production is sharply written (Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson), occasionally absurdist, the slapstick aspects being suggestive of Duck Soup. The show is prescient : allusions to isolationism, Brexit and Trump (“Make Bulgaria Great Again !”) are all in the melting pot. The philosopher Santayana observed that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them – so let us never forget.

Out Of The Forest Theatre have delivered a stylish, hugely entertaining, poignant winner here at Edinburgh – it is on until 28th August, 80 years to the day that Boris died. See it.