Living with Oedipus for 15 years

A classic myth set in seven plays over three days with student actors is a labour of love

Living with Oedipus for 15 years

Many great writers from Sophocles to Voltaire have tackled the Oedipus myth. More contemporary interpretations include a film with Christopher Plummer, an opera by Stravinsky, even a pop song by New York singer Regina Spektor. None has the ambition of a new version by Kingston, Ont.-based playwright Ned Dickens, who is currently staging the family history of Oedipus, which takes place over 150 years.

Dickens’s production is a logistical challenge (some might say nightmare). The epic involves seven plays, each based on a character in the story. The seven plays have been divided up and are being staged locally by Canadian theatre students at Memorial, York, Concordia and Simon Fraser universities, George Brown and Humber colleges in Toronto, and Langara College in Vancouver. The student actors will then fly to Toronto to put on the whole series, called City of Wine. The shows will be staged over three days and the complete cycle will run twice, back to back, from May 5 to May 9.

Initially, Dickens was commissioned to write just one play about Oedipus. In 1994, staged in Toronto under the Gardiner Expressway, it won a Dora award. But by that time, the playwright had become hooked on the myth. No one had ever written a play about the complete history of Thebes, the birthplace of Oedipus and the god of wine. One play became three, then seven. The number of actors ballooned from a handful to over 100. Some of them have worked on the show for years, starting the project at the beginning of their theatre program, and staging it now as they finish their degree.

The Oedipal story is a familiar part of our cultural landscape: Oedipus is the banished son who unknowingly kills his father and falls in love with his mother, not realizing they are related. Mother and son have four children together before they realize the incestuous nature of their relationship. Still, the playwright wanted to flesh out the story’s complexity. Freud might have given Oedipus his own complex, but historically, the play presents him as a self-sacrificing hero and great leader, says Dickens.

The historical family saga has taken 15 years to produce. During that time Dickens met his partner and had two children, now aged four and seven. When money was low, the playwright coached politicians in the art of public speaking. He also worked in construction, but he ended up hurting his hand, crushing his fingers in a power cord that got caught in a drill. Even now, they are “mangled and strange-looking,” he says, and they hurt in the cold and when he types. Raising production money required another kind of creativity—he told the Canada Council that the plays tackled both road rage and the disintegration of the family in order to emphasize the myth’s relevance to modern times.

Staging the story did not come cheap, even with student actors. The plays were produced by the independent theatre company Nightswimming, which raised several hundred thousand dollars: it sent out thousands of letters asking people for money. Seven arts foundations and two private companies contributed financially. With the funds, Nightswimming brought in about 70 professional actors and about a dozen directors, including the award-winning Jillian Keiley, to work with the students for several years to polish their performances.

The multi-city performance is being staged at a time when theatres are struggling to fill seats, says Rob Fothergill, a theatre professor at York University. Last week, investors pulled out of Rob Roy The Musical, scheduled to open in March in Toronto, and the Toronto-based Buddies in Bad Times theatre has also cancelled a show scheduled for next month. The current trend in independent Canadian theatre is to avoid financial risk with smaller productions and a cast of just a few actors; City of Wine has more than a hundred.

The reviews haven’t come out yet, but the series is already creating “buzz and excitement,” says Denis Salter, a professor of theatre studies at McGill University. Nothing on this scale has ever been tried in Canadian theatre, he says. At the play Laius, one of the seven, and currently being staged in Toronto, the students delivered an engaging performance, with bawdy humour and live music. At one point, about 17 actors were jammed onto the small stage, all playing instruments including guitars, drums, triangles and spoons. The audience was cheering, laughing and clapping. After years of work, an ancient Greek myth had finally come to life.

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