“The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Jeremy Malies in Edinburgh
8 August 2023

This Brechtian piece begins in 1943. It tells the story of persecution and rescue of Jews in Bulgaria during WWII from a present-day perspective. The play is accessible, sprinkled with sardonic humour and packed with mimicry of the highest order. The musicianship is also outstanding. Think Oh! What a Lovely War! mixed with The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 


Joseph Cullen as Boris III.
Photo credit: Bessell Photography.


But despite the core content being first-rate, the script writers let the project down with some clunking jokes that suggest they occasionally run out of ideas. 

The play is never cosy or saccharine and doesn’t flinch from stating that while Boris (played by Joseph Cullen) found the resolve to defy Hitler and save up to 50,000 Jews from the camps, an initial caving-in to Nazi demands and several transports to Treblinka remain a stain on Bulgaria’s record to this day. 

The script is to some extent an essay on the dangers of irredentism with Bulgaria having been given Yugoslav Macedonia and Greek Thrace by the Third Reich as sops for allowing its principal landmass to serve as a strategic base for Axis invading forces. 

We start with the Bulgarian anthem in a pre-war version sung by all of the cast who may well be native speakers. Three stringed instruments and a flute are played in front of us with dialogue and song being tightly integrated, this being one of the many features which serve to make the 70-minute playing time fly by.  

Cullen is personable and subtle as he complains of having slogans shouted at him constantly. (“Make Bulgaria great again!” had a wry component.) But as one of the writing duo (with Sasha Wilson) he might like to examine lines such as: “Do I have time for an emergency wee?” Similarly, the excellent David Leopold has to make what he can from an entrance and costume that depend on supposed mishearing of “Austrian” for “Australian”. Perhaps I was in Eeyore mode and should lighten up since gags like this made Pleasance Dome erupt in laughter.  

Later, Leopold uses his bewitching voice while dressed as a Bulgarian Orthodox nun and I hung on every syllable of “Just A Little Talk With Jesus”. He also excels with “This Land Is Your Land” while referencing Woody Guthrie. Territory and religion; they seem to shape all of history. Clare Fraenkel reinforces the point poignantly as her violinist character eventually emigrates to Jaffa but only after a speech that reflects on her family having fought during WWI for values that were common to the nation of Bulgaria and Judaism. 

What this show certainly isn’t is a dramatized history lesson and while anybody reflecting on it can be excused for going to Wikipedia, the company (always with the element of Brechtian distancing) make the tumultuous events truly live for us and we are outraged not just by the Nazis and their pogroms but the yoke that was the Ottoman Empire under which Bulgaria suffered for five hundred years from the late fourteenth century. The play is a well crafted and thought-provoking essay on leadership.