As ex-RSC director Terry Hands boldly launches his new Theatr Clwyd company with four new productions in as many days, Jeffrey Wainwright hails a new Welsh national theatre in the making.

One sometimes hears tell of a strain of jaundice afflicting regional theatre directors which takes the form of a fixed belief that actors can only be seduced beyond the circumference of 0171 when they are in such a state of penury that their mobile phones are about to be repossessed. Even then they would play Lear or Cleopatra for three weeks max, all passed in mortal terror of missing the chance of a voice-over for Tweets.

Terry Hands is clearly not susceptible to this ague, for, having taken over the directorship of Theatr Clwyd, he has planned an inaugural season that stretches to invisibility current conceptions of the art of possible casting. He has gathered a cast of 24 actors in Mold to mount four initial stagings - all given their national openings last week - to be followed in the New Year by a new Christmas show and two further productions: a rare revival of David Rudkin's memorable Afore Night Come, and a new play. These will all run in repertory throughout next spring.

It is not difficult to see that Hands is reviving the halcyon spirit of the RSC in this enterprise - a long-standing company of actors engaged in a variety of work which they can continue to develop, instead of having to stop just as they are reaching their potential. For the regular audience, there is that now rare but inestimable pleasure of seeing actors in utterly different roles within a few nights. And the actors get to live in Mold, which has hills and parking.

The Rape of the Fair Country is a shrewd inclusion in the first wave. Adapted here by one of the company members, Manon Eames, the late Alexander Cordell's tale of iron and blood set in the newly industrialising cauldron of South Wales is a company show that strikes some strong bass strings for its audience. It is directed by the theatre's new associate director, Tim Baker, and the style owes a good deal to the contemporary model of novel adaptation where the narrative voice is tossed swiftly among the characters, and not a little to the marching-into-the-footlights stir of Les Miserables.

But the powerful story of Iestyn Mortimer's initiation from the age of nine into the brutal world of the early iron foundries is forcefully and movingly told. There is unexpected complexity, too, in the Mortimer family's split attitudes to their labour, with the patriarchal Dada (a bravura performance from Ifan Huw Dafydd) carrying machismo into masochism in his faithfulness to his masters and the work ethic, while his daughter Morfydd (Vivien Parry) espouses Chartism. Mark Bailey's spectacular set is dominated by a tramway gantry which is the site and emblem of the workers' suffering, and Nick Beadle lights it with the livid flare of the ironworks.

Yet the most inspiriting aspect of the show is that Rhys Miles Thomas, as Iestyn, not only delivers a characterisation of quick-footed charm, energy and poignancy from child to man, but seems to embody the whole company effort in his performance. It is not often that one sees an actor so palpably lifted and inspired as he is by the end of the evening.

Impressive work by yet younger actors helps distinguish Terry Hands's own production of Peter Shaffer's Equus. Oliver Ryan is in his first professional season; he begins his portrayal of the disturbed boy who has just blinded several horses, and whose defiant alienation is expressed by shrieking advertising jingles, as though he is having an electric current passed through his body. He doesn't quite maintain this level, but then, because of the essentially recapitulatory nature of the play, which seeks to show how he came to this pitch, the character doesn't have much scope to move forward. But in their love scene he and Siwan Morris - another assured and distinctive debutant - achieve an edgy and believable tenderness. The older head here is the distinguished silver of Frank Grimes, as the boy's psychiatrist. He has the unenviable task of carrying much of the play's addressed narration - a task Shaffer wisely delegated to secondary characters in Amadeus - as well as its philosophising. There is barely space to register his own dissolution as well, but Grimes manages all this with clarity.

However, the main attraction of Equus remains the sheer theatricality of its horrifying central image and of the mimed presence of the horses themselves. Hands, who has also designed the lighting, and Mark Bailey empty the large stage to place the action on a raked disc on which varying circles and rectangles of light are focused from above. The white "horses" are elevated on to stainless steel buskins and their horses' heads framed of the same material. It is an austere but wonderful use of the space, and shows off the play's strengths to perfection.

These are early days, but the immediate impact made by these shows (Abigail's Party and Entertaining Mr Sloane are playing in the theatre's smaller space) is hugely encouraging. Under Terry Hands's direction here is a theatre not resigned to putting on a this-then-that series, but forging a long-term body of work as a company. Already it looks like a national company for Wales, and if the promise can be fulfilled, it will be a beacon to British theatre at large.

Tickets: 01352 758323

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