Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson: The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria

By | Published on Monday 25 September 2023

If you were up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer – and I feel sure that a reasonable proportion of our readers will have been – then you might have come across Out Of The Forest Theatre’s acclaimed production ‘The Brief Life & Mysterious Death Of Boris III, King Of Bulgaria’. 

Written and created by Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson – both of whom also perform in the play – it tells the story of how a large number of Jewish Bulgarians were saved from the Nazis during the later years of World War II. 

I spoke to Joseph and Sasha to find out more about them and the play. 

CM: The title’s quite long and informative, obviously, but can you tell us a bit about what ‘The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria’ is all about? Where does the narrative take us?
JC+SW: Our play is the story of how nearly 50,000 Jewish Bulgarians were saved from deportation and death during WWII and how the world forgot all about it.

Our central figure is Boris III; a young king thrust unprepared into a position of power then faced with an impossible choice.

Boris is the monarch left to clean up the mess of his father’s defeat in WWI and he’s saddled with the knowledge that Bulgaria is not a large player on the world stage, nor do they have any military power, so they need to pick a side in order to avoid invasion. 

Once the decision has been made to ally with the Axis Powers, we dramatise the events in Bulgaria – primarily in 1943 – as politicians and citizens alike work on both sides to control the narrative of what would happen to the Jewish population.

We shine a light on some of the extraordinary ordinary people who worked tirelessly to save their friends and neighbours, when so many others across Europe were following Hitler’s plans. This is a complex story, but ultimately a hopeful one.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JC+SW: The central theme to the story is moral accountability. What was really intriguing to us as we researched the play, was the very real human experiences of how a person faced with an impossible choice comes to decide what to do.

Where is the line between honourable neutrality, compromise, appeasement and pragmatics? We hope the audience will put themselves in Boris’s shoes and really ask themselves, what would they do if faced with a similar choice. 

Another through-line is how grassroots efforts by ‘extraordinary ordinary people’ can actually make a difference in the course of history.

It can be disenfranchising and disheartening when looking at politics today, the nasty rhetoric that has been allowed a platform in the UK and further afield is starkly reminiscent of similar ‘othering’ language of decades past.

We wanted to share this story of Bulgaria as a reminder that good people can stand up, and make a difference, when the time calls.

CM: It’s about historical people and events, obviously. Does the play entirely stick to the facts?
JC+SW: Yes absolutely and – in some specific circumstances – no. We’ve included as much of the real history as was humanly possible in 80 minutes. The tricky thing has been how to tell the story compellingly and clearly for the stage.

So, to that end, there have been a few instances where we’ve compressed timelines or elided characters for audience clarity, but everything is grounded in historical fact. And when there is a gap in the record, we have done our best to exhaustively research in order to arrive at a reasonable conjecture of what might have happened. 

It’s quite fascinating really, because there are a series of facts that we know. We know, for example, Boris III allied with Germany, was reasonably obstructionist about complying with Nazi policy, then cancelled a scheduled deportation, and then met with Hitler and shortly died.

And it’s about going, what does the psychology of this person look like? How might they have behaved? What might they have been like? Hitler described Boris as a ‘wily fox’, and we have accounts of the king dressing up in ‘peasant garb’ and popping into villages to help out with odd jobs.

We do know that on the day Bulgaria signed with Germany, Hitler celebrated by having double dessert. We have included accounts taken from letters and other correspondence to pepper our dialogue with some words that were actually written and recorded.

Whenever we have to slightly bend the history, as part of the production we actually let the audience know when we’ve done so, and we aim to stick to the emotional authenticity of the scenes we stage to the best of our knowledge.

CM: What made you want to create a piece of work on this subject? What was the inspiration for it?
JC+SW: This play was inspired by co-writer Sasha’s Bulgarian grandparents, who had ‘Crown Of Thorns’ – a biography of Boris III – on their bookshelf. When we read the dust jacket, we couldn’t believe our eyes.

As history nerds, we were shocked that we’d heard of Oskar Schindler, of the Kindertransport, but not of this incredible rescue of 50,000 Jewish Bulgarians. We always said we wouldn’t do a WWII show unless we had something really interesting to say… so of course this story piqued our interest.

Sasha grew up speaking Bulgarian and here was a real chance to connect with her Bulgarian heritage, through a fascinating subject matter and a challenging historical period.

CM: How did you go about creating the play? How did you work as co-writers?
JC+SW: As co-writers we share a desire for maximum truth – including as many nerdy details as possible.

Sasha has watched a lot of sprawling historical epics, so tackled the King’s speeches or the more ‘dramatic’ sections, whereas Joe’s interests lie in striking the right comedic balance of the piece. We both offer different things and then work together to fine tune scenes, pacing and the musicality of the language. 

We also rely on ensemble devising and play, and this production was no different. We wrote a performable draft of the play in early 2020 and then tore it apart in a room with three brilliant actor-musicians before putting it back together and tightening what we had, figuring out the staging of the piece as we went.

CM: Has the play changed or developed since you first staged it back in 2020?
JC+SW: The play has evolved an enormous amount. The skeleton has remained the same, but it’s kind of like a kaleidoscope that we’ve been spinning and finally we’ve clicked into the crystalised image that we want.

Since the initial Vault version, we’ve cut characters, redistributed lines, evolved story arcs, added new music – but at its heart, it’s very much the same show.

Our Jewish dramaturg / director Hannah Hauer-King offered the songs ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ and ‘Shalom Aleichem’, and our newly announced Associate Artist David Leopold has been – excuse the pun – instrumental in shaping the musical language of the piece.

CM: The play did a run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer – how did that go, from your perspective? 
JC+SW: Honestly, I’m not sure it could have gone much better.

It was our first Fringe as a company and Sasha’s first Fringe ever as a performer. It was quite a massive undertaking and a huge gamble, taking up a five person show, but a gamble that paid off. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the amazing Pleasance Theatre team and we felt very supported throughout the experience. 

It was such an incredible month and very creatively inspiring. We were fortunate to receive strong reviews within our first few previews, which meant within the first week we were performing to full houses and had a wonderful response from Bulgarian and Jewish audience members in particular.

As creators, we were runners up for The Popcorn Award, and the transfer to The Arcola was in the pipeline before the end of the Festival, so we really could not be happier with how it all went!

We also had the opportunity to connect with friends and meet other creatives, and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of the Festival and the city. Our last experience of doing the show was at Vault Festival pre-COVID, so it was just such a rush and very affirming to be at a festival again!

CM: Can you tell us a little about yourselves now? How did you come to be working in the arts? How did your careers begin?
JC+SW: Sasha has been doing school plays since her turn as Violet Beauregard in ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ in middle school – and, in fact, one of Joe’s earliest roles in the am-dram Somerset theatre scene was as Augustus Gloop.

In Sasha’s final year at Georgetown University, she took a Shakespeare workshop led by LAMDA’s guru of the Bard, Rodney Cottier. It was through the English department, so the first half was on text and then, in the second half, Rodney invited anyone who wanted to play around with the scenes on their feet to stay.

It was just Sasha and a handful of other drama nerds who stayed. At the end of the workshop Rodney suggested she audition for LAMDA and so she did. It was the three years of the LAMDA training that brought her to the UK and then the rest is history! 

We met in a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at the V&A Museum – Joe had arrived there by way of many many childhood productions, university productions and much work as an interactive / immersive performer in theatre and events in London.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working lives thus far?
JC+SW: Within Out Of The Forest Theatre, we have had the pleasure of meeting former King Simeon – Boris III’s son.

Joe was also invited to attend a conference at the European Parliament earlier this year, and as a result we have now met delegates and ambassadors from across Europe, which is something we didn’t necessarily anticipate when we went freelance in the arts!

We also had the opportunity to work together in Arizona a few years ago, which was a great experience, and we actually then took our Off West End Award-Winning ‘Bury The Hatchet’ to a few locations over in the States as well.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JC+SW: To one day be able to delete social media and take up residence in Sasha’s grandfather’s house in the peace and quiet of the Bulgarian hills outside Sofia and catch up on some reading…

Jokes aside, we’re currently planning a tour next year and having conversations about taking the show to Europe and the States.

This story is definitely one we could translate to other mediums, so we are excited to explore different scripts and different versions of these events for a much larger audience – we keep having to pinch ourselves at how well it’s been going and how enthusiastic the audience response has been.

We will be looking at some new Out Of The Forest work as well for 2024 and beyond!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JC+SW: We are both working on ‘A Christmas Carol’ at The Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton with Pleasure Dome Theatre and director Scott Le Crass. We don’t ALWAYS have to work together – but until Sasha learns to drive we may have to!

‘The Brief Life & Mysterious Death Of Boris III, King Of Bulgaria’ is on at Arcola Theatre from 26 Sep-21 Oct. For more information and to book tickets, head to the venue website here.

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Photo: Will Alder