Review: The Rosenhan Experiment and A Guess-Me-Knot

“An excellent work, performed convincingly. ... Mention should also be made of the brilliant piano writing”

“There was a first-rate sense of ensemble ... and Benjamin used the forces available to full effect”

Seen & Heard, May 2008, by Carla Rees
Radius at Purcell Room, 25th May 2008

This was a well balanced programme of new works for chamber ensemble, ably performed by Radius.

...The programme contained two works by Radius’ founder and director, Tim Benjamin. A Guess-Me-Knot was a well constructed quartet for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello. Taking a three note motif as a basis, the music formed a maze of interweaving lines which combined with, and contrasted each other with much success. Pairs were formed between flute and bass clarinet, and violin and cello, featuring high string harmonics, rhythmic unisons and an excellent use of repetition to unify the work. There was a first-rate sense of ensemble ... and Benjamin used the forces available to full effect.

The Rosenhan Experiment is a music theatre work for countertenor and piano, which tells the story of an experiment conducted by David Rosenhan in 1972, into the validity and reliability of psychiatric diagnosis.

The scene is set by ominous and sombre repeated piano notes, interspersed with lush harmonic chords, which had a sense of being emotionally charged. As the narrator asks “can the sane be distinguished from the insane?” the tone is distinctly dark. Benjamin uses one singer as both doctor and patient, narrating the part of the doctor and singing the patients role. The contrast between the spoken voice and the high pitch of the countertenor’s sung range further accentuates the difference, while providing an underlying sense that all is not well; in this strange psychological world, deeper meanings prevail, and the parallels with the schizophrenic diagnosis were strong. One small grumble; Robert Ogdens diction was not as clear when singing as when speaking (perhaps as would be expected), and as a result of the constant changes from one to the other, it was sometimes hard to follow the sung text (it should be said that the libretto was provided for the audience, but the lighting in the hall meant that it could not be read during the performance).

Otherwise, though, this was an excellent work, performed convincingly. The stage action was simple and effective, and the acting was good, maintaining the flow in what was essentially a static scenario. Mention should also be made of the brilliant piano writing; John Reid played continuously throughout the work’s substantial duration, at times the centre of the musical attention and at other times blending gently into the background of the action. This is an fine work, full of impact, which deserves future performances. Benjamin handles the subject matter with intelligent consideration, raising probing questions about the treatment of the mentally ill. There is just the right balance of humour to offset the seriousness of the subject matter, without a hint of becoming flippant. This was a memorable performance, which appealed musically, dramatically and intellectually — look out for more performances.

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