“WHATEVER we do, it must be twice as well as a man to be thought half as good. Luckily that’s not difficult.” So says Letitia Hardy, the heroine of the Royal Lyceum’s latest production The Belle's Stratagem, a witty and thought-provoking examination of gender politics that runs until March 10.

And while we might expect such a line to come from the mouth of a contemporary character, discovering it was actually written 240 years ago by a female playwright, Hannah Cowley, comes as something of a surprise.

The strong female character at the centre of the play was one of the main attractions for director Tony Cownie, especially since the themes it explores still resonate so strongly today.

“So many things impressed me about the strength of Hannah Cowley’s writing, not least the fact that it’s so unusual to read a play from the 18th century that is written from a woman’s perspective,” he explains. “It is striking that the female characters are far more fully drawn than in other plays of the time.

“Hannah gives the women standing. A lot of the time they are asserting a decision or attitude. If they’re not empowering themselves, they’re empowering each other.

“In some ways, the play is about Georgian girl power and I thought that was very interesting, especially at this particular moment in history for women, as they continue the fight for equality.”

Cowley’s sparkling comedy of manners was first performed to packed auditoriums in 1780, and written partly as a reposte to George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, produced 70 years before. Cownie, a regular at the Edinburgh theatre as both director and actor, has long been a fan of Georgian drama and jumped at the opportunity to transpose the work from London to Edinburgh.

“I’m from Edinburgh and I love the Georgian period,” he smiles. “In fact, I actively seek out plays from this time. When I was about 15 my school took us to see an amateur production of a play called The Golden Age, which was set in 1715 Edinburgh. I was utterly spellbound by it. It was as if history had come to life in front of me.

“Georgian Edinburgh is so endlessly fascinating. The Enlightenment was in full swing and the New Town was springing up – not least the Assembly Rooms. This was a time that would have felt like a new age, with advances in philosophy, science and architecture, and Edinburgh at the centre of it all. The people then would have viewed themselves as modern and progressive. At the same time, of course, women were still seen as the property of their husbands.”

This irony is at the heart of the play, which follows Letitia, played by Angela Hardie, as she negotiates the considerable trials and tribulations of finding a husband. Determined to marry for love in a time of arranged betrothals, she formulates a plan to capture the attention of the charming but arrogant Doricourt, who returns from Europe declaring that he is tired of “dull Scottish lassies”.

As we would expect from a Georgian play, disguise, seduction and a proper baddie all play their part in the proceedings.

But as Cownie, who directed and starred in last year’s hugely successful version of Liz Lochhead’s Thon Man Moliere, explains, he was keen to incorporate another familiar Edinburgh character of the time into the action.

“When I moved the action to Edinburgh I started thinking about what else was going on at the time and it dawned on me that Deacon Brodie would have been out doing his robbing at the time,” he says. “It’s the thing everyone would have been talking about and I enjoyed bringing it into the play.

“Letitia seduces her husband with a mask and, of course, Deacon Brodie wore one when he committed his crimes. There was definitely a parallel there, that idea of pretence, of pretending to be one thing and actually being another.”

The director, who also adapted The Belle's Stratagem, admits getting the language right was something of a challenge – “the vernacular of Georgian speech doesn’t really lend itself to the rhythms of modern urban Scots” – but he believes what shines through above all is the truthfulness of the characters.

“These are people we all recognise,” says Cownie. “What was important was to find a recognisable voice for them and I hope I’ve done that. Hannah was making the point that women have a voice too. But she was also looking to make us laugh, and I hope those who see the play will thoroughly enjoy the comedy.”

The Belle's Stratagem is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh until Saturday March 10.