THERE were times in Green Shoot’s production of The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary, a dramatic eulogy to the late, great David Ervine, when you felt Long Kesh must have been a kind of Open University course for people reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
That’s maybe unfair, and we heard about abuse, although Gusty Spence did recommend the book to his jailed protégé - and its message went home.
For Ervine’s nuanced politics were left-wing, with a repeated line about ‘big house unionism’ ignoring the two up-two down reality of their voters.
This spread to a humorous scene early on when David Ervine’s mother assures Ian Paisley on the doorstep that he has their vote, while his dad, a life-long socialist, says not on his watch. But more colourfully.
The first half of Robert Niblock’s one man show about the life of the man who put the PUP properly on the map was affectionate.
Premiered at the Lyric last night, it was a portrait of one man’s journey rather than the conflict overall, and Paul Garrett portrayed him energetically and with feeling.
We heard that when asked what sort of baby it was after his birth, usually meaning gender, the messenger said ‘He’s a Protestant’. He was, but a fairly unusual one in his time and place.
The narrative covered the ground, from leaving school early to hanging out with his teenage mates.
One segue goes from groping big Tracey, who has enhanced her figure with stuffed newspaper including a cutting detailing fighting in Derry that heralds the start of the Troubles, to the history.
There was a plausible sense of Ervine sleepwalking into the UVF, led by the first guy he has to call 'sir'.
He’s bolshy but settles into the mindset, having as a kid learnt his neighbours might be dubbed ‘Fenians’.
This is familiar territory, but from a particular perspective when it comes to the actual violence. Coalisland is namechecked, as well as Bloody Friday, when IRA bombs clustered in Belfast city centre.
Family life suffers and Jeanette, Ervine’s teenage love and wife, resists the money due her from the paramilitaries once her husband receives his lengthy sentence.
The judge pronounced Ervine good with words but still a terrorist, sentencing him to 11 years.
The guy’s verbal talent was threaded through the script via key words and phrases – crossing the Rubicon to determined, the latter from grandson Mark aiming to be a superhero – the definitions read out from the Oxford English Dictionary. David Craig’s nice set consists of two enormous books laid out open onstage.
There are more than decent passages, with Davy’s reaction to his grandson’s death by suicide harrowing. Yet we didn’t entirely get why this engaging man shifted his world view, even though his quotes, including the famous line noting "We’re all just people" gave a clue.
There was realpolitik, also real passion on behalf of his community, with Ervine pleading with Mo Mowlam to release Loyalist prisoners as well as Republicans and save the Good Friday Agreement. She phoned Tony, of course.
The Lyric has fielded a few dramas recently on questions of Irish political identity, including the outstanding Agreement.
This wasn’t that, but a different look at history through a single, significant life. Matthew McElhinney directed with care.
The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary runs until September 10 at The Lyric Theatre, then tours, ending up at the Playhouse, Derry on September 24.