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Middleman: An Interview with Writer and Director Barooj Maqsood

Staff writers Klara Ismail and Hannah Durkin interview writer and director Barooj Maqsood about thier new student play Middleman.

We sat down with Barooj Maqsood, the writer and director of King’s Players’ upcoming main stage show Middleman. Set in the roaring twenties to the backdrop of gang violence, prohibition, and sexual exploration, Middleman is by no means a ‘straight up’ cocktail of the period.

There’s a twist in Middleman’s martini. The protagonist, Jasper Clark, a Gallagher Gang member, has been ordered to take out a Mafia gang affiliate, Valentine Bertelli. Unfortunately for Jasper, Valentine has been ordered to do the same, with one slight hitch: Jasper Clark and Valentine Bertelli are the same person. 

Barooj has had many formative experiences of theatre and drama growing up. In their third year, Barooj took a Shakespeare’s London module and experienced being on stage at the Globe Theatre. They also successfully auditioned for King’s Players’ Musketeers production, last year. “When that ended I was devastated,” they stated. “I miss it when I’m not doing it.”

Barooj wrote Middleman in just under three weeks under a tight schedule: “I finished it on Monday and the read-through was on Wednesday.” With a cast of twenty-four, Middleman is the first first full length play they have both written and directed themselves. 

This is no easy feat; student productions are notoriously difficult to coordinate, especially in the build up to end-of-term deadlines. They had heard from other student productions that large casts could be a nightmare. But Barooj assures us: “I have a fantastic cast, they’re all committed.” 

“This play has a lot of dark themes,” Barooj asserts. As such, they felt it essential to include a fight and intimacy co-ordinator: It’s “important to me [Barooj] that actors feel safe.” Having acted in productions prior to directing, Barooj knows that building a genuine relationship with their cast is vital, and encourages their creative autonomy: “those scenes are their scenes.”

For Barooj, spectacle and naturalism are essential elements to their vision of the play’s look and feel. Their initial thought was to set Middleman in the Cold War period but upon reflection chose the 1920s, partly due to a commitment to an authentic historicisation of the play’s events. Barooj explains that “the concept just wouldn’t work, because you have easy access to photographs.” For Jasper/Valentine, “not being caught out in the modern day is so much more difficult to execute.” 

Barooj was also interested in how they could play with representations of duality during the 1920s: “Duality with morality […] What is moral, what is immoral.”  With Prohibition laws banning the sale and consumption of alcohol, Middleman centres on “the ordinary person casually breaking the law” and the spiral down into “ordinary lawlessness”. For many, the 1920s are a decade of decadence, debauchery, and drunkenness, and Barooj seeks to capture the energy of this period: “I just want [the audience] to have enjoyed themselves … The general look of it, the feel of it is very cool, it’s entertaining, one of the big things I look for is for the audience to be entertained.” 

For Barooj, “there’s enjoyment in catharsis,” and Middleman seeks to balance the overwhelming spectacle of the period and the heavy content themes without desensitising the audience. On one level, Barooj just wants people to have fun from watching their show. However, they also want audiences to feel like this is the kind of play they could go and “discuss in the pub for a while.”

With a student-play budget, Barooj has had to manage an ambitious production with limited funding: “You really have to think about how you are going to make the audience pay attention.” Nevertheless, this calls for creative and original solutions to audience engagement.

To end on a salient point we asked Barooj their favourite interval snack. Sweet and salted popcorn. A fitting response to a play which hinges on duality and decision.

Middleman is definitely not one to miss and is showing at The Anatomy Museum 7pm, 14th-16th December. Tickets can be found via The King’s Players.

Hannah Durkin

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