Vault Festival preview: The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria

Welcome to another preview from the Vault Festival. Today I caught up with Joseph Cullen, co-Artistic Director of Out of the Forest Theatre.

Their new show The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, Part the First is on in the Cavern on 11-15 March at 9.20pm.

It is “about a nation’s quest to save the Jewish population from deportation/death, set to satire and folk tunes”. Read on to find out a bit more about it.

Image of Boris III

Congratulations on your return to Vault. What’s particularly special about the festival?

JC: Thank you Louise, we’re delighted to be back at Vault Festival again this year! It’s our third year here as a company, having previously brought our Off West End Award-winning Bury the Hatchet, and Offie-nominated Call Me Fury [reviewed by LouReviews at the Hope Theatre].

The festival has always been a very welcoming one, and one that accepts work at all stages of development, which is really exciting for anyone who wants to use a short run to propel their script further.

All of our previous work has been greatly enhanced by the response of a Vault Festival audience, and indeed through the opportunity to watch so many other brilliant creatives at work underground!

I really enjoyed your production of Call Me Fury, particularly the musical elements. How important is music and song to this new production?

JC: We love using music throughout our work, whether to propel the narrative forwards, to transition us through time and/or space, or to simply serve as a “breather” for the audience to digest a particularly complex scene!

We’ve discovered through R&D and rehearsal for Boris III, that this story warrants music to be used tonally more than anything else. Songs punctuate the political landscape and offer us a moment to take stock of where we are.

Why write a play about Boris III of Bulgaria, and why should audiences come and see it?

JC: Sasha Wilson, one of our co-Artistic Directors, is Bulgarian by heritage, and we were given a biography of Boris III by her grandfather a few years ago.

The events we’re looking at for this show are relatively unknown outside of Bulgaria, and we think with the political climate being what it currently is, it’s wonderful to showcase this story of the Bulgarian people banding together against oppressive forces.

Boris himself seems to have been quite a forward thinking monarch compared to others at the time, and we wanted to explore a very well-known context (WWII) from a viewpoint our audiences will be new to, all delivered with the music, humour and passion of an Out Of The Forest Theatre show.

Joseph Cullen, who also plays the title role of Boris III!
Joseph Cullen, who also plays the title role of Boris III!

Clearly the #makeborishistory has current political overtones. How does the post-Brexit climate impact on your show?

JC: It’s impossible not to draw certain parallels between 1943 Bulgaria and 2020 Britain: the way information is hidden or selectively disseminated to the people, growing right-wing political agendas, an increase in hostility toward minority groups.

We’re most certainly not saying that history is repeating itself, but we think it is important to learn lessons from what came before so we can approach the future with compassion and hope.

When we launched the show (before the general election!) we were hopeful we could #makeborishistory over here, sadly that is not yet the case, but we hope we can #makeborishistory on our end i.e. learn the history surrounding Boris III, because his achievements came as a result of the support across Bulgaria from normal everyday people who refused to stand for any anti-Semitic behavior.

Not only does their bravery and compassion deserve to be known, but it also serves as a reminder that if we band together and do the right thing we can affect real change. It doesn’t only come from the top down. 

Your show description talks about “revisionist history”. How much of Boris III should be taken seriously?

JC: Well, as with much of history, there are some areas of this story where we just don’t know, and historians and researchers just don’t know, and somewhere along the line for the sake of the narrative you do have to make a choice.

All of the events are true, and if there are gaps we fill them in with (I’d like to say) “educated conjecture” – but we always tell our audience the truth if it’s opinion not fact.

We have, at times, had to simplify events and reduce characters slightly in order to deliver a clear narrative while preserving the emotional truth of what happened.

Wonderfully, so many people crop up in say one paragraph of an account as having done something super cool, and we wanted to incorporate many of these anecdotes as we could – so some have been elided into one character. But that being said, everything referenced in the show from pen clubs to Prince-finding road trips across Europe, it’s all true.

And indeed we have, as before with Call Me Fury or Bury the Hatchet, judiciously lifted text from the historical record. The only difference is this time, much of that text comes to us in translation. 

What should we expect when Part The Second appears?

JC: Ha! Well, in truth we’ve always known this story is one that warrants being a full two-act length, so we knew in presenting an hour-long fringe-length version that we’d be leaving out so much of what makes this story fascinating.

That’s our next objective, and perhaps Part The First and Part The Second become Part The Only. Or perhaps we’ll write Part The Second when Bulgaria win Eurovision!

Flyer and script for Boris III

My thanks to Joseph and all at Out of the Forest Theatre. All images courtesy of the company’s social media.

You can book for Boris III at the Vault Festival website.