Review: The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, Arcola Theatre

The brilliant people of Out of the Forest Theatre return with The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria at the Arcola Theatre

“I do think on this occasion it has to be the Nazis”

Stories within stories, that’s what Out of the Forest Theatre are so good at searching out and staging so inventively. Bury the Hatchet took us past the lurid headlines around Lizzie Borden to explore our relationship with true crime and Call Me Fury redefined the received wisdom around the Salem Witch Trials to glorious effect – both shows as entertaining as educational, making them one of the most exciting theatre companies around.

So it was hugely gratifying to see them take the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by storm with their new show The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, which now arrives in London in the main space at the Arcola Theatre. I caught a work-in-progress as one of the very last things I saw before COVID-19 shut theatres down and director/dramaturg Hannah Hauer-King’s production has only developed in strength in the intervening years.

Technically, it is about the incredible but true story of the saving of nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews in the Second World War. But as is always their way, Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson’s play is about so much more, with resonances that ring right up to today. The power of peer pressure even on nation states, the difficulties of escaping the influence of fascist Home Secretaries, monarchs who claim to want to give service without doing any action, the worlds of grey that live in the shadows of wartime where much as we may want it, things are rarely so black and white.

Cullen’s Boris is a brilliantly tragicomic figure, whilst Wilson along with Lawrence Boothman, Clare Fraenkel and David Leopold multi-roles and multi-instruments their way through a dizzying array of characters and musical instruments. Sprinkled throughout the show, the musical interventions pluck inventively from Americana to Bulgarian folk, ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’ as haunting Jewish chorale is particularly stunning.

And the writing is never less than thoroughly thought-provoking as it asks us about the stories that we decide to pass on and the narratives that prevail – especially those that dance around the realities of wartime. Thrilling work (and so beautiful to see how affected the Bulgarian people in the audience were, a true sign that Out of the Forest are doing something right here).

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Héctor Manchego
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria is booking at the Arcola Theatre until 21st October

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