INTERVIEW | JOSEPH CULLEN TALKS THE BRIEF LIFE & MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF BORIS III, KING OF BULGARIA
Tw/Cw - War
Winner of the Origins Award for Outstanding New Work at VAULT Festival 2020, The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria, plays at the Arcola theatre.
This darkly comic retelling is told in Out of Forest Theatre’s inimitable style: combining historical theatre and folk music with a modern revisionist twist.
I got to talk to co-writer Joseph Cullen about the show and to find out what the writing process was like for him and Sasha Wilson.
What is The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria
In 1943, nearly 50,000 Jewish people in Bulgaria were spared from deportation and death. King Boris, Queen Giovanna, Metropolitan Stefan, Secretary Liliana Panitza and many others in Bulgaria worked tirelessly to appease and delay, despite having allied with Germany. We tackle the complex series of events surrounding the heroic rescue of nearly 50,000 and the tragic loss of over 11,000 people from Thrace & Macedonia.
What was your inspiration behind the show?
Co-writer Sasha Wilson’s Omama & Opapa (Bulgarian grandparents) gave us a copy of ‘Crown of Thorns’ by Stephen Groueff - a biography of Boris III. We were fascinated by this story of Bulgaria’s history, and shocked that we had heard nothing about it. We always said we wouldn’t make a WWII show unless we could shine a light on something new. Well..! We are not interested in telling simple stories, so researching the position of Bulgaria’s leaders and citizens in this ‘grey area’ of history was a creative challenge.
What was the writing process like? What did you find the easiest and
most difficult part when writing the show?
When we first developed the show in 2020, Sasha Wilson & Joseph Cullen (co-writers) did all the research and wrote a rehearsal draft, and then worked with actors including David Leopold (who plays Metropolitan Stefan / Alexander Belev / Advisor No. 3 in our version) to shape the piece, incorporating music and fast-paced dialogue and multi-rolling. We have since worked with Dessi Stefanova of The London Bulgarian Choir on ‘Mila Rodino’ (The National Anthem) and have strong links with The Bulgarian Embassy in London and descendants of Boris III, who have further informed our development. For our 2023 versions at Edinburgh Fringe and The Arcola Theatre we have worked with Jewish Dramaturg &
Director Hannah Hauer-King who offered some vital musical additions to the show. We hope to stage the full 90-min one-act version of the show in 2024. The easiest sections to write have been when we are able to stay truest to the historical timeline. Of course, with only an hour or so to tell such a complex story, we have had to crunch some timelines and use our
Dramatic licence for a few moments, and these always somehow feel the trickiest to smooth over while toeing the line of historical accuracy vs theatricality.
How does the show deal with and present a subject that can be sensitive
to some people? And bringing to life a true story?
At its heart, this is a Rescue mission, and a powerful story of hope and the bravery of the Bulgarian people. But we must also address the poor decision-making and the weakness that lay at the heart of the right-wing government. While developing this production we have kept a keen eye on the tone of the piece, and the amount of time we devote to the sensitive subject of the deportation of 11,343 from Thracian & Macedonian territories. We have listened carefully to any feedback offered by our 4,000+ audience so far, including many Jewish and Bulgarian people, who on the whole have offered gratitude to us for sharing
these events. As writers we have a duty of care to our audience as well, so comedy & music are used in a balanced and appropriate way as we recount this tale.
With being writers and cast of the show, how do you tackle this and what are the pros and cons?
Where possible we have tried not to wear two hats at once. This hasn’t also proved possible, but once we were into the run at Edinburgh both Sasha &
myself (Joe) were able to rock up to the theatre as actors with our writer hats firmly stored for a time. We have made a few tweaks off the back of 26
performances and 26 audiences, and we are hopeful this will keep
us all on our toes and each new show fresh for The Arcola audience!
Who is your target audience?
We seem to go down well with people of our parents age - the 60s crowd. People who wear cardigans. History teachers. Also, young people and the very old and basically anybody 14+. People with an interest in history or political satire, folk music or tales from outside the UK.
So far, we have had the pleasure of performing to Ambassadors, European MEPS, royalty, playwriting royalty, and some guy I met leaning out of the window in our student halls.
What do you want the audience to take away when seeing the show?
We are keen that audiences leave with some wider knowledge of the events of WW2, that we all think we know so well - and a story to pass on about Bulgaria and its people. At a time when most countries across Europe were doing what they were told and complying with inhumane instructions, the people of Bulgaria (from the king down) said ‘no’ - with varying tactics nearly 50,000 lives were saved. But of course, it is much more complex than that, and we want our audience to question HOW is it that we can hold conflicting and emotionally-
laden truths at the same time, and what are the human consequences of appeasement.
How was The Fringe? And what are you looking forward to most moving
the show to London?
We were gobsmacked with how well the fringe went for us as a company. It was our first Edinburgh Festival and we had so much support given to us from The Pleasance Theatre and Chloé Nelkin Consulting, The Bulgarian Embassy in London and Crown Prince Kyril & Katharine Butler. Financially, we set ourselves a huge challenge (cast of 5 + stage manager for a month in Edinburgh… plus a team of talented creatives to pay… eek) - and in truth, with the story that we have found a way to stage, we were hopeful we could tap into some real historical and political interest from Bulgarian & Jewish communities, and we were delighted with the number of Bulgarian audience members approaching us with questions after the show.
Sasha & I were delighted to be Second Runner Up: The Popcorn New
Writing Award in partnership with the BBC commissioning team, winner of VAULT Festival origins award. So often as actors and creatives, you can worry about where the next job is coming from, so it’s an amazing feeling to know it’s not long before you get to perform again! The Arcola Theatre is a very cool space, and we have seen some cracking shows performed there before - so to say we are excited is an understatement. We were able to share this story with nearly 4,000 people in Edinburgh, and now London audiences have nearly 5,000 chances to
catch up at The Arcola from Sept 26 - Oct 21 - so pass it on!
Favourite part of the show?
I think the moment the Bulgarian people rise to protest and Boris is compelled to face Hitler and speak his mind. As an actor this is definitely my favourite moment to play, and we are very happy with the way we have chosen to stage this meeting between the two leaders.
Describe the show in one sentence.
Enough from me, I’ll let the critics take this one!
Complex ‘historically poignant and hysterically funny’ (★★★★★ West End Wilma) storytelling presented with knee-slapping reverie, talented actor-musicianship, ‘razor-sharp wit and faultless timing’ (★★★★★ The Scotsman); essentially, ‘everything a piece of theatre should
be’ (★★★★★ The Brig).
Important show info
The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria
Sept 26 - Oct 21
Monday - Saturday at 7.30pm
Saturday matinees at 3.30pm
Running Time - 70 minutes
Age Guide - 14+