THE cliches about 'making an incredible journey' and being 'a legend' occasionally apply: they certainly do to David Ervine, who went from UVF member jailed at the Maze on explosives charges during the Troubles to playing a pivotal role in the loyalist ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement.
The life of the east Belfast man, who led the Progressive Unionist Party from 2002 until his sudden death in 2007, is being marked by a new play, The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary.
Written by Robert 'Bobby' Niblock, the clever recorder of unionist history and a former UVF prisoner himself, it examines the political rise of Ervine from paramilitary to an admired and unifying figure in a complex situation.
This unionist was a man nationalists still rate to this day.
"My Catholic friends have said to me, 'If only David Ervine were around now'," notes Martin Lynch, whose Green Shoots company has engineered the production which tours across the north and has a two-week run at the Lyric theatre.
The implication is that a statesman of Ervine's calibre might be able to help with the Stormont stalemate, the timing of which has jarred badly with the big birthday card just sent to the Good Friday Agreement.
"I think he’d be turning in his grave about what’s happening," adds Lynch.
One prescient statement from Ervine indicated the difficulties of moving forward, something he understood: "This society believed it was looking towards a better future yet we consistently find ourselves being dragged backwards."
Lynch adds that he sees the new play as important because of questions of class rather than sectarianism.
"It’s about a working class voice that isn’t often heard. Yes, you get it in the plays of Marie Jones and Gary Mitchell and Graham Reid as against the plethora of (Catholic) voices," he argues.
"It’s a touching play. Ervine was a legend, an orator and comfortable with it. He used language as a weapon.
"The play is a different kettle of fish from Bobby Niblock’s Tartan and the playwright spent a lot of time researching it."
Actor Paul Garrett (52) looks spookily like his subject. At the play's launch, somebody asks if he is Ervine’s brother - but no, Brian Ervine sings a moving song later. Maybe it’s the moustache…
Garrett - who has a fond link to The Irish News, where he worked with the late Alan Patton in maintenance - is clearly relishing the role.
"When I got the part, I didn’t think, ‘I’m playing David Ervine the political icon’, but it is an important role," he tells me.
"We have a portrait of Ervine by his son Mark in the corner of the set and we sometimes think, ‘What would David have said about this?’ It sounds corny but it’s true."
On the question of Ervine’s views about the currently non-existent Assembly, Garrett is clear.
"I think he would have been very disappointed and a lot of people, including friends of mine who are Shinners, wish he was around," he says.
"When I researched the role and got YouTube footage, 95 per cent of the comments were from southerners, saying things like, ‘I am a republican but I admired David Ervine'.”
Garrett went to Rupert Stanley College where, as he puts it, “people like Rosie Smith and the great Michael Moloney were there helping me dip my toe into the world of theatre”. Then he trained at the politically aware drama school E15 in London.
After that, Garrett got work, including a commercial for the Youth Training Scheme: "I had to act young and confident, against my socialist self."
Asked about whether the Northern Ireland accent was a bonus or disadvantage, he says: “Good question. Now you hear northern (Irish) accents everywhere, but then it was different.
"Of course, some of my mates made money from doing Gerry Adams when Sinn Féin wasn’t allowed to speak because of Thatcher’s ruling about not allowing them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on the TV, so something good out of a bad situation."
The actor admits that he was nervous about last week's press event as he knew he’d be meeting Ervine’s widow Jeanette.
“When I saw her, I made a beeline as I wanted to talk to her, reassure her in a way," he explains. "We had a moment, and there were a few tears.”
Which lines best sum up Ervine, in Garrett’s view?
“We try to capture the man’s language and the fact that he was so articulate. There is also an extra twist and I don’t want to give anything away, but a personal event changed his life.”
So the youth who grew up in a fairly closed working class unionist community broke out of what might have been the sort of situation playwright Bobby Niblock describes in Tartan; Ervine heroically managed to move on from incarceration in Long Kesh to a role in shaping the new Northern Ireland.
As Garrett says with some passion, David Ervine’s story remains relevant.
"We need him today in this strange place. The amount of death threats he had, not just from the IRA but from his own side, was incredible," he says.
"But in spite of Ervine’s personal tragedy, when I read the script, it flowed. David had such intelligence and did his best in difficult times.”
Memories of the politician and man who saw beyond sectarian markers include those of his son, artist Mark Ervine, who has painted several portraits of his late father.
“My memories? Well, I was in my early 30s when he died, too young at 53," he tells me.
"I remember we’d go out together to the Raven Social Club on Saturdays and listen to music.”
One of the ways Ervine’s son, who shares the father’s charisma, remembers the man is via his art.
He adds: “I haven’t yet seen the play but hope it’s accurate.
"My father was the voice of reason in his birth community but could sort of see how the Shinners’ working class community worked.”
The director of the Lyric shows, Matthew McElhinney, told me they were “getting there” with The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary.
It has been a challenging, rewarding job, he says: “We’ve had the odd rewrite and re-jig, but it’s good.”
There’s always a challenge in representing somebody whose reputation looms large:
“He was so charismatic, but I think we have got his voice. Ervine used big words - his was a working class voice yet he was very delicate in his speech.”
This portrait of David Ervine should be, in both senses, a class act.
The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary is at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh tonight, the Strand Arts Centre tomorrow and the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Saturday, before running at the Lyric theater in Belfast from May 2-14. It then tours other venues across the north - details at greenshootproductions.co.uk