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Ned Dickens’s seven-play cycle City of Wine gets two run-throughs this week courtesy of a collaboration between acting schools.
Ned Dickens’s seven-play cycle City of Wine gets two run-throughs this week courtesy of a collaboration between acting schools.

A playwright's marathon in ancient Greece Add to ...

Ned Dickens has been working on his first play for, oh, about 15 years now.

Of course, when Dickens turned from acting to play writing as his eyesight failed in 1994, he wasn't planning on creating what may be the largest theatrical project in Canadian history.

Back then, he was simply commissioned to pen a new version of Seneca's Oedipus - an appropriate tale of blindness, both literal and figurative, for an artist suffering from advanced glaucoma.

But after tackling the story of the king who gouges his eyes out for Toronto's Die in Debt company - and winning a Dora Award for it - Dickens became interested in expanding his vision to further consider Jocasta, the mother Oedipus loved too much. Then, he became curious about the aftermath of Oedipus's downfall.

Six years later, Dickens's Oedipus had turned into a trilogy. And then he realized what he really wanted to dramatize was the entire history of Thebes.

City of Wine - which recounts the 150-year lifespan of the ancient city from conception to destruction in seven plays and 14 hours - finally gets its full public premiere this week in Toronto. The whole cycle of seven plays will be performed twice, starting today.

It's a fittingly cathartic moment for Dickens after a decade and a half of writing, subsidized by work ranging from teaching to stone masonry.

"It's a pretty wonderful feeling," he says over the phone from his home in Kingston. "Not everyone gets a magnum opus.

"It's cost my family. We don't have a house or a cottage. But we have this."

But Dickens, born in British Columbia and raised in Ontario by a father who taught in boarding schools, isn't finished with his Theban obsession quite yet. In fact, this week's performances are only the beginning, according to the playwright and Nightswimming, the theatre company that has faithfully supported his ever-expanding vision since 1997.

City of Wine 's two performance cycles at Theatre Passe Muraille this week are part of an unprecedented collaboration between seven of Canada's top acting programs from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Memorial University in Corner Brook.

Each school has produced one of the cycle's chapters as a final-year project - in chronological order, they are Harmonia , Pentheus , Laius , Jocasta , Oedipus , Creon and Seven - and they are bringing them together for the first time in Toronto.

While developing City of Wine , Nightswimming's artistic director Brian Quirt realized that partnering with theatre schools was the only way the play cycle could be affordably workshopped.

"The primary goal of the marathon is to allow us and an audience to see the seven plays in sequence, see how they weave together," says Quirt, who also worked as dramaturge on Dickens's original Oepidus and thus has spent a third of his 45 years working on this project.

The question, then, is what life City of Wine will have afterwards.

Certainly, the seven plays can be produced individually, but there are only a handful of theatres in Canada that have the resources to tackle the whole cycle. Epic in length, with large casts and written in verse, no less - would any theatre take a chance on a professional production? Might the ancient mythical king this project ends up associated with turn out to be Sisyphus instead of Oedipus?

Quirt believes there are different ways City of Wine could be reasonably tackled: A single company could put its plays on in seven consecutive seasons, for instance. Or, in a professional repeat of this week's student performances, seven independent companies could each put one play on separately and then bring them together.

And there has even been interest from an organization that might have the ability to mount the whole thing: Toronto's Luminato Festival, which is participating in the development. (The plays have attracted queries from European and American theatres, too.) Theatres certainly seem to have an unending passion for the myths of Thebes. Sophocles wrote the most famous plays about the city - Antigone , Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus - and other playwrights, including Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, Athol Fugard and Wajdi Mouawad, to name a handful, have been inspired millennia afterwards.

Dickens's cycle isn't simply an adaptation of these older works. Though based on the original myths, it goes off on its own course and fills in the blanks about the city's most famous inhabitants, from founder Cadmus and his goddess-turned-mortal wife Harmonia onwards.

"Ned has found such wonderful ways to make them not mythic figures, but individuals in moments of crisis," says Quirt. "At the same time, he's invented dozens and dozens of characters that have no antecedents at all."

Notably Dickens has ditched the Greek chorus for seven individuals who reappear in different guises in each of the plays. These archetypal characters don't have names, but are identified by the props they carry when they first appear in Oedipus : Bowl, Blood, Glass, Bread, Cloth, Firewood and Water.

The central protagonist of City of Wine, however, is Thebes itself.

It's primarily the story of the life and death of a great city.

"You can see Thebes going from a vision in someone's mind to an encampment to a metropolis to a crumbling ruin to a memory," says Dickens, who dropped out of architecture school before pursuing a career in the arts. "It's a whole culture - it's like Shakespeare's seven ages of man."

Dickens has gone through a couple of those ages himself in the process of writing City of Wine . When he began Oedipus , he was a single father living in Toronto, working with street youth; now he's 50 years old, living in Kingston with his common-law wife and two young children.

His vision hasn't deteriorated as badly as he had originally feared it would when he wrote Oedipus . There was a time when doctors worried that, like Thebes's most famous resident, or the prophet Tiresias who figures in several of the plays, he might go blind. Now, his glaucoma has stabilized, but its effects have pervaded the cycle.

"Blindness and vision are major themes throughout the whole thing," he admits, though he doesn't like to "dwell on my various ailments."

Still, the gargantuan project has taken its toll on the playwright in other ways. Recently, Dickens went to York University to talk to the students there who are presenting Seven , the final chapter in the cycle. He was asked to, quickly, tell the story of City of Wine from beginning to end to fill them in.

It took him an hour, and afterward, he was exhausted. "It took me about three days to recover," Dickens says. "It's a little overwhelming, the sum total of the tragedy and the suffering of the plays."

"Maybe it's wrong to put them together," he muses. "Or maybe it's just a larger catharsis. We're going to find out."

The City of Wine performances start today at 4 p.m. and run until Saturday evening at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille ( www.nightswimmingtheatre.com ).

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