THE strange, tentative Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2021 was drawing to a close. The social distancing at the eerily quiet Traverse Theatre was so rigorous that it felt like one’s fellow audience members were sitting in a different postcode.

Then, bursting through the Covid anxiety, came the too-short run of This is Paradise. A seemingly modest solo play by Northern Irishman Michael John O’Neill (who was better known in Scottish theatre circles as the longstanding artistic producer of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow), this play about the traumatic life of a young, working-class Belfast woman garnered richly deserved rave reviews.

Such was the acclaim, in fact, that the decision to bring the production back for a longer Fringe run this year was, as the Americans say, a “no brainer” for the Traverse.

Last year and this, enthralled audiences and most critics have appreciated the subtlety and humanism of O’Neill’s writing. We meet the protagonist, Kate (who is now in her early-30s), in April 1998, just as the Good Friday Agreement – the founding document of the much-vaunted Northern Irish “peace process” – is being signed.

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Struggling to emerge from a difficult early life – which included an exciting, but extremely dysfunctional, relationship with the dangerous, and considerably older, Diver – Kate, like Northern Ireland itself, faces the future with trepidation.

If O’Neill’s writing – which is powerfully sensitive both to his character and the political metaphor she carries – has received merited laurels, so too has the remarkable performance of the play’s actor, Amy Molloy. Hailing from Belfast herself, the young actor seems to have an almost intuitive understanding of her character and the brilliant nuances of O’Neill’s script.

Mining emotional and psychological depths that few actors can muster, Molloy’s performance is one of the most moving and convincing evocations of personal trauma I have witnessed in almost 30 years as a theatre critic. When I catch up with the actor at the Traverse, I’m keen to know how her extraordinary connection with O’Neill’s play has developed.

Molloy adored the script, she tells me, from the moment she was approached with an early draft. The play is “lyrical, detailed, sometimes novelistic,” she says.

“I just love working with new writing. It’s exciting to work so directly with a playwright on subject matter you care about.”

The actor was, she remembers, “so moved” to discover that both O’Neill and director Katherine Nesbitt had her on the shortlist to play Kate.”Sometimes I say that roles seem to find me,” she explains.

Molloy notes that her character spends much of the play talking about the men in her life, from the destructive Diver, to her own father, a first love who died young, and, now, her current, doting partner Brendy. There’s a school of thought, she observes, that recoils from female characters placing such an emphasis on men.

However, she adds, Kate’s need to express herself about the negative and positive impacts of men in her life is “for a reason.” Indeed, she continues, “I think it’s important to examine, unravel and talk about the expectations and shame that’s put on her [with regard to her relationship with Diver, for example], when that isn’t her own to carry.”

For Molloy, her character’s monologue is a “cathartic” process by which she tries to “unburden” herself and to break through the, often deeply misogynistic, tethers that have, hitherto, sought to define her life. Rather than reflecting some kind of misguided obsession with men, Kate’s recollections are, the actor suggests, “a journey back to herself”.

It’s a brilliantly perceptive comment, getting to the heart, both of O’Neill’s play and Molloy’s heartbreakingly powerful rendering of it. The actor’s performance is so compelling precisely because we are witnessing a young, working-class female character, whose life has been largely defined by traumatic events, finding her essential self.

As she recovers that inner strength, she asserts that she will no longer be the collateral damage of the toxic masculinity of men like Diver and, even, in his moments of conservative moralism, her loving father.

In Irish nationalist mythology there is a romantic female character, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, who represents Ireland and its aspirations to self-government. One could make a strong case for Kate (a modern Cathleen, perhaps) being a much more complex, far truer reflection, both of women’s experience and of the troubled, anguished, hopeful condition of Northern Ireland in the 21st century.

For her part, as a daughter of the devastating conflict that we euphemistically call “The Troubles,” Molloy says she feels a close affinity with “wee Kate”. “I relate to the layers of stuff over the years that I had gathered up as a woman as well,” she says.

That “stuff”, she explains, can come “even from the men that love us and are good to us.”

Amy Molloy’s performance in Michael John O’Neill’s powerful monodrama This Is Paradise is wowing audiences

In expressing that, Molloy was glad to find that O’Neill was receptive to working with her to ensure that the monologue remained resolutely in Kate’s authentic voice (rather than becoming an echo of the opinions of Diver, for example).

The play as staged certainly achieves that goal. The events of Kate’s difficult past life are expressed, not in her moments of greatest trauma, but from the reflective standpoint of where she is now.

If Molloy was attracted to the character of Kate in all of her fascinating, sympathetic complexity, she was also deeply interested in the play’s consideration of “inter-generational trauma” in Northern Ireland. She was “very drawn,” she says, towards the drama’s contemplation of “the complex post-traumatic stress in the country.”

In playing Kate, the actor has been interested to note her character’s “desensitisation” to violence. This, she observes, carries undeniable metaphorical implications for Northern Ireland as a society.

“I was so excited to really get into that script,” she comments. “It was a gift,” she continues, to be offered a character who was “so close to my own background and my own feelings.”

As she is proving again at this year’s Fringe, Molloy is returning that gift to audiences in spades.

This Is Paradise plays the Traverse, Edinburgh, until August 28: