THEATRE / Skin-deep and star-crossed: Punks and skins have come together to play Romeo and Juliet. Michael Lawton reports

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The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is often replaced in modern productions by warfare between groups of more current irreconciliability. The Polish production by Krakow's Teatr Ludowy goes one further, however: the actors playing members of the two gangs are not actors, but actual members of two gangs.

For the director, Jerzy Fedorowicz, the production was initially more a matter of self-defence than art. The Teatr Ludowy serves the industrial suburb of Nowa Huta, and since taking charge of the theatre in 1989 Fedorowicz had slowly succeeded in the difficult task of creating a regular public for theatre among Nowa Huta's steel-workers.

But his work was threatened by the violence that erupted in the town in autumn 1991. Audiences no longer dared to come to the theatre after dark, as rival gangs of youths took over the streets to fight their private wars. So Fedorowicz went on television and invited the skinheads and punks to an open rehearsal, on condition that they ceased to terrorise the neighbourhood. The gamble paid off. Hundreds turned up and after several months of open rehearsals, a group of 30 was chosen to perform a much- shortened version of Romeo and Juliet in public. Originally, only four performances were planned; but to protect the theatre from a violent invasion on the opening night, the company promised to give a second performance each evening. Since then, Romeo and Juliet has become a regular part of the repertoire.

They have also been invited to perform elsewhere, and have just set off on a tour of Germany. Last week, they played in an arts centre in the former wash-house of a disused coal mine in Essen. Johannes Brackmann, who invited them, wanted to prove that theatre can be used to counter violence. Essen is not far from Solingen, and the dangers of racism are in everyone's thoughts. 'We are shocked at what has happened, and we have to think what we can do,' he said. 'The idea is to show politicians that it's possible to work with theatre to prevent such situations.'

Nevertheless, the theatre was full as the skins and punks performed their balletic punch-up in the first scene. To specially composed raucous rock music, the skinheads, in grey, black and army camouflage, laid into the punks, with their coloured mohican hairstyles and bright striped leggings. As in any amateur production, there were weak elements; but Anna Kudelska makes a suitably innocent infatuated Juliet, and Weislaw Zago (whose nickname is 'Agrawa' - 'Safety-pin' - from the 50 or so safety-pins adorning the lapels of his leather jacket) made an intense, thin-lipped Romeo.

The production ends with the chief punk and the chief skin shaking hands over the lovers' dead bodies. Up to a point, the action reflects what has happened in real life. Fedorowicz says that in the beginning, the stage fights drew real blood, but slowly the two gangs have turned into a group of friends. Fedorowicz points with pride to a marriage and several relationships which have taken place across group lines. But Agrawa says that, although they have become friends, the borders between the groups are still there. 'A cow remains a cow,' he says, 'but we don't deal with ideological differences through fighting any more. We use polemic.'

For the discussion with the audience that followed the performance, the two groups sat broadly separated on either side of Fedorowicz. No one seemd to want to enter too deeply into punk / skin conflicts and there was general embarrassment when someone asked an awkward question about the 'skinhead' murder of a German lorry driver, which had taken place close to the theatre just after a rehearsal. (The people who were eventually charged did not come from the theatre group.) Someone pointed out that reconciliation is not only needed between punks and skins; perhaps this tour can do something for German / Polish relations: Poles are among those now being regularly beaten up by German skinheads and neo-Nazis.

Still, the Teatr Ludowy has put into practice the theory many hold - that art can have the power to heal the wounds of society.