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

Boris III 3
Boris III
Photo credit: Bessell Photography

“By March 2020, here’s hoping every Boris is history.” I’ll be honest, if I didn’t already know of Out of the Forest Theatre’s work, that line on their VAULT Festival page would have been enough to make me want to see their new show – not least the accompanying hashtag #MakeBorisHistory. But having seen and thoroughly enjoyed Bury the Hatchet and Call Me Fury (both at The Hope Theatre), I knew that I had to add this one to my VAULT itinerary.

Say the name Boris and there’s one very obvious face that springs to mind (despite that not being his real first name), but that is not the Boris Out of the Forest Theatre are here to tell you about – and thank fuck for that. This is the story of one Boris Klemens Robert Maria Pius Ludwig Stanislaus Xaver, King of Bulgaria from the end of World War One until the later years of World War Two: an unlikely hero in the midst of the Holocaust whose death remains a mystery.

This is another production that makes excellent use of The Cavern, setting it up in the round and with a multitude of access points. This means that everything is perfectly audible (even with the occasional rumble of a train overhead, which actually adds to it at certain points) and, though you may not be able to see every corner of the performance space, there is always something to see from wherever you are sitting.

This company has definitely honed its style of storytelling over a relatively short space of time; live music (performed by the cast) plays a big part and definitely sets the tone, plus a quite tongue-in-cheek narration sitting alongside regular scenes. The anachronisms in language (“Yass, King!”) and music (such as Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land) definitely add to the humour of the piece. They also manage to link into current affairs without bludgeoning you over the head with it – it’s there if you want to see it.

The unfamiliarity of the central figure is one of the big draws of the show, but it’s fascinating to see the complexity of humanity presented in the form of Boris III; someone who tries not to be out of touch but is also scheming to win back lands his father lost, wanting to remain neutral in order to save his subjects’ lives – but risking Jewish Bulgarians by asking the Nazis to win said lands back. Many plus points but some very poor decisions made too.

The cast of five engage wonderfully with the audience – with a particular nod to Joseph Cullen when King Boris greets his assembled subjects, ensuring an appropriate level of cleanliness is maintained on both sides. The four remaining actors (Sasha Wilson, Kara Taylor Alberts, David Leopold & Joseph Prowen) all take on multiple roles, including government ministers, secretaries, and spies – a simple change of costume (Helen Stewart) and a brief introduction when they’re first seen easily allows you to keep on top of things.

This production is roughly an hour long and, despite most of us going in there quite clueless about the specific geopolitical situation, it’s straightforward enough to follow as we at least know about the bigger picture – plus everything is explained in an incredibly entertaining way. There are hopes that it can be extended to a two-act play and, though it works brilliantly as it is, I can’t wait to learn more about this curious episode in history told in Out of the Forest Theatre’s own inimitable style.

Boris III 2
Boris III
Photo credit: Bessell Photography

My verdict? Here’s one Boris you’ll want to know more about – a rousing & entertaining history lesson told with a musical flourish.

Rating: 5*

The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria: Part The First runs at the VAULT Festival until 15 March 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

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