Actors

Marsh Dodanwela: The Monologue Man

A few minutes before his performance begins, Marsh Dodanwela has already begun to transform. He develops a marked limp to compensate for his missing toes; the white bandage wrapped around his four fingers does not conceal a slight tremor, beads of sweat and pain crystallise on his brow. When he speaks, his tone is self deprecating, his words are rushed. When he finally faces the camera, he focuses intently on it, without a glance for the crowd around. He is on a bizarre quest – embracing severe self mutilation as an art form, a rebellion, a protest against all the mediocrity in the world. Still not content, this ‘Destruction Artist’ is ready to take it up a notch.

Pic by Andre Perera

The monologue being filmed is in fact a disturbing ‘advertisement’, an announcement that he is seeking people to enact violence upon his body. At first the monologue seems out of place in the collection. What does it have to do with violence against women?

The connection is so subtle, just a few sentences, and so you may not quite catch it when he says: “If I haven’t really done anything much for humanity, I can at least do my art in the service of others. So I don’t perform the violence myself anymore. I invite other people to do it. It can’t be just anybody. I screen heavily. No fetishists, no sickos, it’s not about that. It has to be someone who’s had violence done to them, and it’s almost always women.” When Marsh shuffles off after finishing his monologue, you’re left amused and horrified, and just a little in awe.

It’s been three years since we last saw him in and as both the Devil and Billy Markham in the enactment of Shel Silverstein’s famous monologue. The role won him rave reviews, but Marsh hasn’t acted in anything since, re-emerging only this year to deliver this very different monologue. The challenge in bringing Michael Cunningham’s piece to life was in trying to “humanize” the man that we’d be justified in considering a sociopath, says Marsh, explaining that he’s always been drawn to “characters who are very extreme.” When we meet him a few days after the V-Day performance of ‘A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer: Writings to End Violence Against Women,’ he says professional commitments have decided his choice of both roles – with a demanding schedule to consider, monologues are all he has been able to find time for. His love for theatre, however, has always been tied up in the camaraderie of big casts and ambitious productions.

He began as a teenager with Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ (1996), and then played John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ (1997). It was in while he was studying for his degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Nottingham that he was asked to play an Indian waiter in Alan Ayckbourne’s ‘Confusions’ (2000). The role had barely four lines – one of which was “would you like some more potatoes?” – but Marsh says it taught him one of the most valuable acting lessons he would receive.
His character had to serve two couples at a restaurant, but unknown to their respective spouses the man seated at one table was having an affair with the woman at the other.

“The audience hears what the waiter hears,” says Marsh, “I had to really react to everything that was going on because I was the only one who knew the narrative of this entire story.” Despite the scarcity of lines, the role offered him the chance to cultivate a rich array of non-verbal responses. “I had been so much into speaking parts, and I thought that was what defined you as an actor…it was what you said and how you said it,” he says, explaining that here he learned to use looks, gestures, body language, mixed signals and misdirection. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, Marsh was in a production of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ (2003), Shakespeare’s ‘Rome & Juliet’ (2004) and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (2006) – in which he was cast as Shylock. In 2007, it was ‘The Devil & Billy Markham’ followed by ‘Collective Works’ in 2008, again by Silverstein.

Marsh co-directed the last with his childhood friend Rajinda Jayasinghe, and that’s a collaboration he says he’s looking forward to revisiting. Speaking of ‘The Destruction Artist’ he says that “little flourish” has reignited his interest in theatre and that he would in particular like the chance to direct his own production. In the meantime, he has plenty to keep him occupied – he’s a passionate advocate for reach of new media and is a Senior Manager for Engagement Media (Digital & CRM) at Leo Burnett’s Arc Worldwide. A black belt in karate, he continues to train every week with the same Sensei who first began teaching him as an 8 year old (and with whom he has “long conversations about Zen and about Buddhism and about how you centre yourself”). Then, there are his bandmates from Hollowpoint Halo. Though the group is on an “extended hiatus” they do still meet for the odd jamming session.

While he’s speaking, Marsh does his best to avoid looking at the photographer wielding the camera. This seems to be the one lingering symptom of a time when he says he was too shy to ever imagine being on stage. Even as a young man, his skill as an actor seems to have more to do with his innate talent than any coaching: “From the time I was a kid, I would speak in different voices, mimic cartoon characters and things I heard,” he says, adding that acting is sometimes so much fun because it’s the closest he can come to being a child again.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on April 10, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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