Hannah Jane Walker hands me an egg. I feel its smooth weight on my palm and anticipate the sticky shards if I were to squeeze. I always feel a bit self-conscious about audience participation, but I am not alone with my egg; she’s handed out eggs to most of the rest of the audience too. She instructs us to draw our faces on the eggs in permanent marker. It’s a competition, she tells us, and in a competition there are winners and there are losers.
Through a Buzzfeed style personality quiz, Walker introduces us to the trait of High Sensitivity, experienced by 30% of the population. It includes being easily overwhelmed by your environment, being very sensitive to other people’s emotions almost to the extent of experiencing them oneself, and ‘being deeply moved by the arts or music’. (Find out if you’re Highly Sensitive here!) Unfortunately, as Walker reveals, being Highly Sensitive might make you special but it also makes you one of the losers – because the world is just not built for sensitive people.
In a gleaming white model-box-cum-egg-box, Walker explores the differing life experiences of humanoid eggs Tom and Tim. Tom, who is a winner or, as Walker puts it, a sociopath, gets a part in the school musical and ascends to CEO with a seat at the table. Tim, who is highly sensitive, gets bullied at school, has a miserable time at university, and does not even make it inside the room. Walker installs the audience member eggs in the box, ranked in order of sensitivity. The eggs are an effective and charming visual metaphor, but it is a little slight to form the basis of most of the show.
The performance does not follow a linear narrative; rather, it combines storytelling, insights into Walker’s life, and, of course, eggs. Walker’s background as a poet is visible in the subtle repetitions and callbacks that provide a spine to the show. At points, the everyday language bursts out into flowers of phrases, such as the beautiful poem that concludes the show. At other points, Walker uses humour, such as a particularly entertaining sequence when Walker demonstrates how she used to perform her poetry.
Walker has a warm and inviting stage presence, fortified by the ‘armour’ of the red lipstick she applies at the top of the show to protect her exposed nerves while performing. There is a sense of the stakes involved in her being on stage, in front of us, exposed to our fellow feeling and our judgement. She makes it seem safe for us to ‘join in’ – one of the things that Highly Sensitive people find difficult.
At a certain point in the show, I lose patience with the concept of High Sensitivity. It doesn’t seem that terrible an affliction. As Walker points out, ‘it’s not a condition or, you know, a disease’. I think about structural discrimination – are some people allowed to be more sensitive than others? Does saying that someone is too sensitive dismiss microaggressions? I think about people living with chronic pain and/ or mental health conditions. Sensitivity means different things to different people. These intersections are not visible in presenting High Sensitivity as a universal experience.
Yet Highly Sensitive has a wider scope, even if the threads are left unknotted. It is sort of about sensitivity but also about the future, the things valued in society and how the world is falling apart. In introducing a story about her daughter at a musical playgroup, Walker hits upon a fascinating question that reformulates how the show has discussed sensitivity. Should you should raise your children to survive/thrive in the world as it’s currently made, or should you try to make the world more nurturing to accommodate their difference?
Highly Sensitive was on at Roundhouse till 20th September. More info here.