Watching Emily Souter Johnson perform is like observing a ball of energy as it fluctuates between maximum vitality and catapults to a drop. She has an exquisite ability to be simultaneously bubbly and exuberant, even when she is openly displaying her emotions to the audience. By revealing her vulnerable side and enlightening us on her family history, the onlookers cannot help but feel like her closest companion.
This is certainly how I felt after watching her production of ‘Polyester’ at Exeter Phoenix on 7 December. During the duration of the show, there was an authentic aroma of intimacy. Emily was situated in a small room with twelve members in the audience. Rather than looking down at her spectators on a raised platform, Emily facilitated the front of the room, energetically moving from the side of the space to her Martini bottle implanted on an old table.
there was an authentic aroma of intimacy
The show possessed a zealous lick of humour and subtle showbiz. She began the performance inviting the audience to sing an Irish folk song in their finest Irish accent, allowing everyone who had been practising to release their inner leprechaun. Immediately, the audience grew closer to Emily and those around them. The showbiz did not stop there, for Emily repeatedly sang her fathers favourite chant, which involved passionate feet stomping and clapping. After ending the show on this chant, it was that particular song that shadowed me for the next few days.
Alongside humour, the performance also entailed a political lilt, despite Emily repeatedly saying ‘but this is not a political show’ after she found herself talking about Brexit for longer than she expected. She recalled the painful tales of visiting an Ireland where they were in constant fear of the IRA, stating that ‘this was the landscape of my childhood’. She recollected a particularly painful incident where bombs had been placed in her Grandfather’s office. For Emily, this threat made her even more patriotic of her Irish roots.
zealous lick of humour and subtle showbiz
This resulted in a show that was fundamentally about Irish identity, family and grief. In the course of one hour, Emily transformed the audience back to the week her father died. Through her humorous descriptions of her sister, ‘perfect Kate’ and her brother who she describes as ‘being very very good at having children’, the audience began to sympathise with Emily who seems like the black sheep of the family, whilst also making us question what it means to be individual. With Christmas looming around the corner, we were also made to realise that December will not be disastrous if our families do not get on, after Emily stated to her Mum:
‘There is nothing more important than family.’ (Emily)
‘Don’t be so silly Emily, some families are shit.’ (Emily’s Mum)
It is often hard to decipher whether a performer is crying genuine tears, however, after hearing Emily tell us about the hardships of losing a parent, it was clear that her emotions were painfully real. For someone that has lost a family member or not, Emily’s recollections of her gentle father who had trained to become a Samaritan and the fear she felt when her sister had to pick her up from the airport to tell her her father was dying was heartbreakingly real, whilst acting as a solace. By depicting the madness of an Irish funeral, where ‘in Ireland you don’t get invited to a funeral, you just go’ and reflecting on the aftermath of not having that loved person in you life, Emily eradicated the stigma surrounding grief. Talking to Emily after the show highlighted just how refreshingly open and willing she was to discuss the sorrow she felt for her fathers passing. For her and for the audience, the show provided a form of healing.
Emily eradicated the stigma surrounding grief
On the evening of the 7 December, I was expecting to be confronted with an endless monologue that found me drifting off. However, I was captivated by Emily Souter Johnson’s wry humour, Irish patriotism and unadulterated openness. It was a night of fun and honesty, so I would highly recommend paying Emily a visit on the 23 and 24 January at The Wardrobe Theatre.