Presidential Suite: A Modern Fairytale

John Binkley was looking for a way to tackle the banking crisis – in figurative terms, at least. He wanted to write a play that would get to the root of the matter, that would somehow put this modern parable onstage. The destructive appetites of the rich and powerful were the guiding force. “It was the greed and the abuse of power by the banks,” he says of his motivation for writing the piece. “But I just couldn’t find the vehicle … I didn’t find that the characters in that story were interesting enough.”

Then the Dominique Strauss Kahn case kicked off. In it, Binkley saw the paradigm for the story he had been trying to tell. “You had the powerful French man and the black maid and the rich wife. The play to me is about abuse of power – a different kind of abuse to the kind the banks had, but still abuse of power.” A Francophone and avid reader of the French papers, Binkley began following every detail as covered by both the the right and left wing press, charting the parallel commentaries by the gloating opposition and the defensive conspiracy theorists. In the form of this unwilling love triangle, he had found his human element.

He defines the incident as a “springboard” from which he then wrote his story, a blueprint upon which to graft an instantly recognisable story with a note of universality. The appellation is no idle mistake: A Modern Fairytale was initially the full title for the piece. Presidential Suite was a later addition. The idea of the fairytale, says Binkley, is used facetiously – an ironic statement on the very unromantic reality of inequality and a reflection of the not-so-happy-ever-after. “It’s not a level playing field,” he points out. We return again to the theme of power used wrongfully: “It’s not only the sexual assault, it’s the use of great wealth and money just to batter your way through”. It seems there’s a paradigm there for all of us: in the throes of an economic crisis where we bear the consequences but can’t call the shots, perhaps we are all to an extent the maid in the hotel room.

Binkley articulates himself eloquently and clearly, always trying to see the argument from all sides. He has no use for caricatures. Though he’s obviously very passionate about the subject matter and the forces at play beneath the surface, he’s no searing incendiary. There are no rants, no lectures, no waggled fingers, no ‘let me tell you’s – he gets wrapped up in his rhetoric, but with an overwhelming sense of both rationality and reasonableness.

This stoic approach belies the studious passion he has for these issues: exploitation and inequality – whether because of age, gender, money or status – clearly both fascinates and infuriates him. What specifically started him writing the play was in fact an article he read with Alan Dershowitz, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, renowned Harvard alum and legal defence for such other notorious clients as OJ Simpson and Mike Tyson. In the article, Dershowitz dismissed the complainant’s accusations as a ploy for financial gain: “This isn’t about justice,” he was quoted as saying, “It’s about money”. If there hadn’t been a bee in Binkley’s bonnet already, there was now. “It just pissed me off,” he explains (in typically measured tones). “I was angry enough about what I saw as a defence strategy for this man [to start writing].”

And sure enough, the play features an arrogant Harvard-educated hotshot lawyer. Along with the bumbling adulterer and the iron-minded wife, he forms part of what Binkley describes as “this rich, cocky, pompous, spoiled trio” that come up against two forces they expect to quash easily – a low status hotel maid and a young lawyer fresh out of law school – and encounter more than they bargained for.

Binkley is anxious to point out that Presidential Suite is not directly about the DSK case, however: it is not an exposé peek behind the scenes. What’s interesting is how ready audiences are to see it as such, though; after one performance, a fellow writer rushed up to him, demanding eagerly, “Is that what really happened?” The play thus offers an intriguing reflection on how we as audiences respond to such ‘inspired by’ works: do we want to give an artist’s work more factual authority than it lays claim to? Binkley chooses to take such zealous credulity as a compliment – “it shows that this fictitious ‘behind-the-scenes’ was compelling enough for him to buy into it” – but is adamant that it is, nevertheless, “fiction, just fiction”.

He couldn’t know, of course, that his figure of inspiration would be such a marvel of self-perpetuating scandal. Since the disastrous incident in New York, Strauss-Kahn continues to be in the news for ever-new and ludicrous indiscretions. A case that Binkley took as a blueprint, assuming it would have been forgotten about by most people, has become a calling card for instant debate. “I thought everyone would’ve forgotten about him by now and I’d just have this abstract play,” he says, but this is not the case. Among his peers at least (the ‘over 50s’ as he tactfully puts it), it’s a topic bound to spark a reaction – “You can barely get a sentence out before they jump on it … they’re curious about it, they want to know what happened, they wonder”.

Although he has come as a spectator many times before, this is the first time Binkley has brought anything to the Fringe. He is interested to see the reaction it will garner here. He already took the play to Paris for a brief run (“I figured if we were gonna troublemake, we might as well go to the heart of the matter”), where the response was fiercely good, involved and – unexpectedly – humorous. “Humour’s a tricky business,” he muses, “especially when you start messing with other cultures”. The audiences of Paris started laughing almost immediately at the portrayal of the uptight waspish wife – but it was an ironic, knowing sort of laughter. Binkley might have avoided caricatures, but his characters clearly strike a chord of recognition. At any rate, he’s ‘very interested’ to see how it plays out here.   

He worries that the younger audiences will not feel such a stake in it, however. Liza Binkley, the actress playing the young lawyer, later joins us in the interview and details the conversations she’s had about the play with her own peers, both here and in her home city of New York. The name Strauss-Kahn, it seems, eluded many young people, even those well-read in current affairs, but once they knew which case she was referring to, they attacked it with just as much vehemence as everyone else. Personally I think – I hope – that young audiences here will have no trouble making the connection; but regardless, as Binkley says, Presidential Suite is not about Strauss-Kahn specifically. It is a tale of exploitation and entitlement to which we can all relate – the play’s inspiration is contemporary but unfortunately not isolated. It is, as the wry title makes clear, a fairytale for the modern age.

Presidential Suite plays at C eca at C Venues from until 18 August, presented by B&G Productions (New York). For more information about the show, visit www.edfringe.com.

Image credit: B&G Productions

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