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Title role at last;Set play;Theatre

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. By Sean O'Casey. Donmar Warehouse, London.

Dearbhla Molloy has twice played Mary, Juno's rebellious daughter, and is now tackling the female title role for the first time.

Set in a Dublin tenement during the Troubles of 1922, O'Casey's play continues to have resonances for modern audiences. The overriding emotion is a sense of loss when a young man dies, whether he has betrayed the Republicans or not.

Juno does her best to hold together a family in which she is the rock. Her husband, Jack Boyle, the "Paycock", finds solace in Foley's bar, her daughter Mary becomes pregnant by Bentham, a slippery school teacher and - the final straw - her son is accused of betraying Tancred, a Diehard Republican neighbour, and killed by Irregulars.

For Dearbhla Molloy, Juno is "not victimised by circumstances. She rises up strongly. She is like a tug-boat at sea, swamped by the waves, but she just keeps going". The driving force in the lives of the women in the play is the necessity to combat poverty. In this they are pragmatists.

It is, Molloy believes, a play about compassion rather than politics. "One of the key speeches in the play is spoken by Juno after Mrs Tancred enters in mourning for her son. She goes through a list of the mothers' sons and husbands - it's always in relation to women - who have died. And we see that it is a personal war. In her final speech, Juno repeats Mrs Tancred's earlier one about the pain of losing her son.

The Paycock's relationship with his drinking companion, Joxer Daley, is that of two children who refuse to take responsibility seriously. For Molloy it is "almost like a love affair. Juno is very jealous of Joxer." She describes how she and Colm Meaney (Boyle) allow their original companionship to shine through in Act 2. "There was a lot of fun at some stage. We see what the marriage could have been if it were not for poverty." Molloy says: "O'Casey's regard for men seems minimal in this play. Even the ones in the Republican movement spout hollow, learnt-off phrases. He is saying that it is a tragedy that the nation mythologises its heroes without looking at the human cost."

As the play ends Juno makes what seems to be a sudden decision to leave Boyle to look after Mary and her baby. "This woman is passionate about her children. If Mary is in danger of falling apart or is looking into the abyss of faithlessness, Juno has got to save her. Her religion is fundamental." Having played Mary, Molloy has decided to see her as "cut from the same rock. She is going to turn into Juno one day."

Heather Neill. Until November 6 Tickets: 0171 369 1732

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