John Leung’s 2017 comedy outing has the best title of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Say it aloud three times and you will know what the show is about, too — The Cunning Linguist.
Yes, that’s right: etymology, phonetics and the oral skills required for language. ’cept, that it’s not just about speech and oration. It also includes history, anthropology, bilingualism, chickens, AFL footy, language misuse, and goofy rap ditties. It’s primarily a meditation on the sex appeal of language.
If terms like ‘gestural gesticulation’, ‘oral articulation’, and ‘bi-labial fricative’ don’t bring a blush to your cheek, John’s witty playfulness with language quickly will! Some of the territory he covers shocks. But he presents it with such equanimity, you feel you are in the comfort of a scientist both of language form and human form. This is his unique charm, delivering highly credible information whilst also poking his cello’s bow at the funny bone of language quirks and linguistic formality.
Barefoot, Leung occupies our attention with an unassumingly calm demeanour, whilst intellectually interrogating questions of sex organs, genitalia, ancient Romans, latin word origins, and ‘ejaculations’ (by this, we mean the 18th century use of the term).
Like the academic whose tutes you never wanted to leave, he revels in his mastery of French, Mandarin, Bhosari, and other languages which ‘click’, because he is a ‘master of tongues, both foreign and familiar’.
Allow John to take you on his whimsical tour through language irony. There is lots of laughter from the audience. Accompanied by his own shambolic rap songs, live cello playing, audience interaction (with the best singalong guide to subject/object relations), and a clear-eyed determination to get to the ‘root’ of the question (to borrow a grammatical term), this cleverly-scripted 50 minutes is both factual and eventful. You get so much value for money.
Its heart is also poetical. It’s more than a meditation on the rudiments of linguistics. It’s a romantic glance at what we humans do across all tribes to express ourselves with each other.
If ‘grammar’s got you bad, and syntax drives you mad…’, you must see this little show on for 5 nights only. Learn etymological facts while being entranced by Leung’s politely irreverent style. Who knew language was all about sex? Er, ‘communication’.
He also recommends we ‘send along any grammar pedants [we] know’, for them to get the lowdown on language’s real purpose. This could be the best gift you could ever give those expressive killjoys!
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.
The Cunning Linguist runs 28 March–8 April 2017, 6.45pm (50 mins), Mon–Sat at Tasma Terrace. Book tickets now. The venue is not accessible.