Benjamin Feitelson, C Eca, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Edinburgh Fringe, Feminism, John Binkley, Liza Binkley, Presidential Suite - A Modern Fairy Tale, Rape, Sally Knyvette, Seamus Newham, Theatre Review, Vanessa Donovan
[The following contains spoilers.]
It is not good enough for those behind “Presidential Suite – A Modern Fairy Tale,” which has just departed C Eca, to make out that their play is only “based upon” the trial-that-never-was of the French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They will not get away with this by merely altering the names of the people involved. In May 2011, DSK was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury for the attempted rape of a hotel maid, but the charges were subsequently dropped after the maid was unable to string together a reliable testimony. With the presumption of innocence widely suspended throughout the media, DSK had been publicly humiliated and he had lost the French presidency.
John Binkley’s play is smartly written and slickly acted. It may not even put its dainty foot wrong out of any active predisposition against DSK. The story may be merely minded to remain scrupulously symmetrical. The chambermaid Hermione (Vanessa Donovan) gives her side of the story: she was bullied into offering the DSK of the piece a blowjob and then locked in a cupboard when she refused. The DSK of the piece Richard Chataigne (Benjamin Feitekson) gives his side of the story: they had consensual sex and anything else is “entrapment.”
From then on, “Presidential Suite” keeps schtum about whatever happened in the bedroom. The complainant and defendant will never meet on stage and we see only their seconds duelling on their behalf. Chataigne’s apparent assault on Hermione is conflated into a greater symbolic power struggle between their respective attorneys Pershing (Seamus Newham) and Granger (Liza Binkley). Pershing, a doughty embodiment of patriarchy, lectures the idealistic Grainger like a father who is trying to discipline his unruly daughter. Yet his cynicism may make him ultimately more able than her to procure the truth.
Each orchestrates a vicious smear campaign against the other’s client. Pershing attempts to bribe Hermione into withdrawing her testimony, but a billionaire feminist will intervene at the last moment to bribe Hermione into testifying. The play ends with Hermione celebrating her triumph and Pershing scowling at his defeat.
It is rather like ending Macbeth with the hero rejoicing that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born. Yet “Presidential Suite” has to be very careful to utter nothing incriminating; it is like a contract which is deliberately riddled with loopholes to get us out of any binding meaning. How can we regard Hermione as an inspiring figure if she will testify only from the pocket of a paternalistic – or rather, a maternalistic – billionaire fairy godmother (hence the title), who evidently subscribes to the same brand of do-gooding politics as Chataigne? Does Grainger’s feminism blind her or give her the strength to take on a corrupt patriarchy? Why are Grainger and Mdme Chataigne (Sally Knyvette) prepared to bribe the maid millions not to lie, rather than to trust a jury to establish the truth?
But in reality, this case did not possess such symmetry and depths of ambiguity. Far from being an innocent victim of smear stories, Nafissatou Diallo had fabricated crucial events from her past. In real life, a lawyer as shrewd as Grainger would not have proceeded so confidently with a complainant whose story was so ropey. Hermione is effectively a sanitised or even decontaminated spectre of Diallo – somebody to add retrospective credibility to the suspicions of those feminists who were actually left red-faced by the DSK affair. Moreover, the stakes in this case did not merely encompass the destinies of the individuals concerned. This play alludes occasionally to the “good” that Chataigne could do if he was at liberty, but we have no sense of the lasting disruption to a sovereign nation’s politics.
But this play is too smart to get caught rewriting history. Only the context in which it is presented raises concern. The programme is adorned with a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi which speaks of women not being “merely tolerated but valued.” When Mdme Chataigne cries “you little cunt!” at Hermione, the audience are audibly outraged. Perhaps there remains some wistful fantasy that if only DSK had been an arrogant patriarch – if only he had thought that his money put him beyond the law – if only justice had been really thwarted. But it hadn’t.