Image: Kristian Messere in Harmonia from City of Wine (John Lauener)

City of Wine

By Ned Dickens

City of Wine is a nine-play cycle telling the story of the Greek city of Thebes – best known as the home of Oedipus. Beginning with the founding of Thebes by Cadmus and Harmonia, and ending in the city’s demise seven generations later on the battlefield of Troy, City of Wine provides a powerfully relevant commentary on justice, leadership and civic life. Alarming, funny, sexy, thoughtful and exceptionally moving, the plays offer vivid reflections on all that it means to be a citizen, those who lead us and how we respond (or not) to that leadership.

This contemporary look at some of western literature’s most remarkable characters breathes new life into their stories while introducing the citizenry of Thebes as distinct yet familiar individuals, an approach to the ‘chorus’ that is unique to Ned’s vision of this legendary city. Ned has conceived the nine plays of City of Wine as three trilogies: GRAPE: Harmonia, Pentheus, Thebe; VINE: Cadmea, Laius; Jocasta; WINE: Oedipus, Creon and Seven.

Dramaturgy and process

Playwright Ned Dickens and dramaturg Brian Quirt began work on the cycle in 1994 when Die in Debt Theatre (Toronto) commissioned Ned to write a new version of Oedipus for an outdoor production (directed by Sarah Stanley, with Brian as dramaturg) that was presented to great acclaim under the Gardiner Expressway that summer. Receiving the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Production, Ned’s Oedipus was a masterful and unusual retelling of the story, and one that inspired him and Brian to examine more deeply the story of Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, and the story of Jocasta’s brother Creon. These conversations led Ned to conceive of two companion plays: Jocasta, telling the story of Oedipus’ birth and the love affair that unites him with Jocasta; and Creon, a revisionist look at the story of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone.

Nightswimming began work on what Ned was now calling City of Wine in 1997 when we commissioned him to write Jocasta (cast of 15), a prequel to his version of Oedipus. We commissioned Creon in 1999 (cast of 8), and workshopped both plays and Oedipus (cast of 16) in 2000, with a major public reading of that trilogy. We then established a three year developmental partnership with the Stratford Festival, and held a series of workshops and public readings there of each play in the trilogy. 

As Ned developed the first three plays, he continued to look both forward and backward in Theban history, discovering that the legendary city had a lifespan of not much more than seven generations. Looking at the richness of stories generated by the ancient Greeks about this extraordinary city, Ned conceived of a further four plays that trace the city’s life from its founding by Cadmus to the demise of its last residents on the battlefields of Troy.

Nightswimming subsequently commissioned Harmonia (cast of 12, 2005), Pentheus (cast of 18, 2006) and Laius (with the National Arts Centre; cast of 14, 2006) and Seven (cast of 7, 2007), and developed each with Ned separately and as a cycle of seven plays. 

Throughout the entire process of creating City of Wine, Brian served as dramaturg and workshop director. Naomi Campbell served as producer while contributing substantially throughout to dramaturgical discussions and the design of the development process.

As the project went from 3 to 7 plays, we became very aware that the demands of the cycle required larger casts, even longer time periods to enable the plays to evolve in response to one another, and to be seen on stage in order to fully complete the creation process. 

We embraced the hugeness of this project, and the dramaturgy of its epic scale, both in terms of storytelling, but also logistics and play development. With 96 speaking roles, the cycle became too big for any producing company to develop, but because Nightswimming is not a producing company we were able to focus whole-heartedly on how these stories worked together across seven plays and never asked Ned to reduce the work or his vision of it.

With this in mind, Brian and Naomi established the City of Wine Project, which focused on the development of all seven plays, and ran from 2006-2009. During this period, Nightswimming set up creative partnerships with 7 theatre training programs across Canada. Over three years, Nightswimming visited each program several times to conduct workshops on the plays and train the students in our approach to dramaturgy and play development. 

In 2007 Nightswimming produced an invaluable week-long workshop in Toronto of all seven plays bringing together dramaturgical insights from the combined contributions of more than 100 professional actors who had participated in sessions over the decade since we commissioned Jocasta in 2007, plus ideas gleaned from our initial work with each of the seven theatre school classes, comprising an additional 100 student actors and artists.

In the final year of the project, each school committed to produce one of the plays as part of their 2008/09 theatre season. Brian, Naomi and Ned attended each show in rehearsal and returned for opening night. In May 2009, Nightswimming brought these seven productions (and more than 165 students) to Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, where the seven play cycle was performed in its entirety twice over the course of six days as the City of Wine Festival.

Following this massive endeavour – perhaps Canada’s largest workshop production ever! – Brian collated his dramaturgical notes on the seven plays from watching the festival, and incorporated comments from faculty, students and audience members. Ned then undertook the daunting process of revising all seven plays in the light of these dramaturgical notes, plus his own extensive observations of the plays in action. This revision process took more than two years, and has resulted in production-ready scripts for the full cycle.

In 2021, members of the Kingston, Ontario, community where Ned lives came together to read all seven plays on Zoom. Bringing these timely plays alive was a fabulous example of a community coming together to explore stories that examine all the complexities of how communities come together (and fall apart).

Nightswimming is proud to have  supported these readings and the outdoor production of Seven, directed by Ned, that took place in Kingston from August 10-15, 2021.

And so the cycle continues…. Ned has further developed the cycle to encompass nine plays, adding Thebe and Cadmea to the original seven, and structuring the cycle in the form of three trilogies. In 2023, The Grapevine Theatre Project is producing an updated version of Harmonia, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams (who has had a long association with cycle, going back 20+ years to an early reading of Jocasta).

You can also follow the progress of Grapevine Theatre and the Kingston community as it engages with City of Wine  by joining the City of Wine: Kingston page on Facebook.

One of 2009’s theatre highlights. Here’s a toast to Bacchus in hopes that the cycle has continued life, for what we saw was an extraordinary piece of theatre as well as an epic undertaking.

NOW Magazine

This amazing project has been in gestation for 15 years, thanks to the caring arms of Brian Quirt and Naomi Campbell at Nightswimming and the boundless invention of author Ned Dickens.

The Toronto Star

Ned Dickens has devoted seven plays, and 16 years of his life, to retelling the tale of Thebes, a sex-and-blood-drenched saga that peaks in the story of Oedipus but starts generations earlier. All seven are now being mounted in sequence in Toronto, in a kind of super-workshop, by seven different theatre schools from around the country, under the auspices of the professional company Nightswimming. It’s a dizzyingly ambitious feat of producing and, despite inevitable unevenness in writing and production, a dizzying achievement.

As with any good cycle, the more you see, the more you want to see. Dickens’ commitment to telling and linking his stories pays tremendous dividends. I’ve never before been as gripped or as shocked by the self-undoing of Oedipus, who appears in two plays and is well played in both — though by two different actors. The future of this project, however fearsome the logistics, must be a full professional production with consistent casting.

The National Post
A group of people standing on stage. Two people have their hand raised and the others onstage are staring at one of those people
Large group of people, they are all pointing to the center of the group
A group of people in a circle on stage, all are wearing different shades of grey