Director Loveday Ingram describes Restoration writer Aphra Behn as the first real feminist, "remarkably ahead of her time". With this bawdy, brash and beautiful production of Behn's controversial comedy, Ingram puts her money where her mouth is, with splendid results.
The Rover is a riot of feminism with none of the coy pseudo-morality that would constrain women writers for centuries to come. It wears its lewdness on its sleeve and puts the female characters so at the heart of the action and so in control of their destinies that it almost feels too modern to be authentic.
Ingram has spent years working on her edition of the text and it's time well spent. Behn's mechanics are there, the complex plots and subplots about a quartet of English Cavaliers in exile during the Cromwell years of austerity, roistering their way through an exotic foreign town with a variety of consequences for the locals. But Ingram makes it crystal clear that for today's audiences, the women are the ones with all the power, whether it be through the sexual charms of the courtesan or the feminine wiles of the three virginal sisters who set out to bag their men during a masked carnival.
The director has built a strong creative team around her, contributing enormously to the success of the show. Lez Brotherston's always reliable designs put us firmly in the Spanish-influenced tropics, the costumes decadent and decaying in equal measure. Grant Olding's evocative songs and underscore are brilliantly deployed throughout by a thoroughly entertaining six-piece band, while Tim Lutkin's lighting supplements the storytelling judiciously.
There's no shortage of talent on stage, either, with Faye Castelow lustily leading the trio of sisters (perhaps a little too lustily for an incipient nun) and Patrick Robinson's Belvile endeavouring to retain a little of the chivalry expected of his position as the right-hand man of the titular rover. Leander Deeny puts in a wonderful cameo as the runt of the English litter, comically dumpy and unattractive to women but superbly sinister in his bid for revenge after being done over by a sneaky strumpet.
At the centre of the tale is the dissolute but lovably roguish rover himself, Robert Willmore – possibly modelled on a real-life friend or lover of the playwright. Willmore is a kind of proto-Captain Jack Sparrow, with all the swagger of Johnny Depp's comedy pirate but much more subtlety in the deft and hugely entertaining hands of Joseph Millson.
Not since Michael Boyd's Histories cycle in the Courtyard has Stratford seen such a swashbuckling entrance, and from that moment on the stage is unequivocally his. Millson does comedy and pathos equally effectively, never straying into the kind of over-the-top territory that could easily undermine character. He's always believable, delightfully horrifying and endlessly watchable.
But even with the neat and tidy resolution of Behn's narrative, there's no doubt in this production that it's the women who have got the upper hand in this exhilarating battle of the sexes.
The Rover runs at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 11 February 2017.