As we launch the first three shows of the 2018 Sydney Festival program, we asked Sydney arts journalist Lenny Ann Low to look back on nearly two decades of Festival experiences and share her most unforgettable memories.

Just over 15 years ago in a huge hall in Moore Park, a Spanish man covered in blood screamed in my face while swinging a huge sword over his head.

He was Macbeth, King of Scotland, and he was in a rage, wrenching his body and howling in near-madness.

I kept very still. The man was part of OBS: Macbeth, a production by Spanish theatre group La Fura dels Baus performed at the Hordern Pavilion for Sydney Festival 2002.

The Festival had brought a show that was like nothing I had seen before.

In all the years of attending Sydney Festival, the most memorable shows have sometimes come from simply snaring a ticket to a show’s sell-out season. Or seeing, in the flesh, a performer or theatre company you have adored from afar. Or getting on a bus and being driven to a backyard in Western Sydney to be part of contemporary theatre that feels so real it makes your mouth dry.

In OBS: Macbeth, a muscular and semi-nude Lady MacBeth had gyrated seductively around a pole in a see-through plastic raincoat. Minutes later men in blood-covered trousers had sprayed spit and rage into the air before other men and women, dressed in dark raincoats, had howled and gibbered under showers of water before writhing and screaming on the floor.

Theatre usually has seats for the audience or, at least, an area where viewers are corralled behind barriers. In OBS: Macbeth there was none of that. We had to get out of the way, run out of the way, fast, as massive mobile scaffold machines swung by and more angry, wet, nude and lustful Shakespearean figures of this tragedy rushed past.

The show was anarchic and scary and punk and thrilling. For a long while, my greatest dream was to be part of La Fura dels Baus, straddling scaffolding in a huge warehouse as pulsating electronica pumped into a roaring semi-darkness.

A year later, another group of vulnerable human forms broke the barrier between audience and show in Ron Mueck’s 2003 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Each was an astonishing, hyper-real, often naked, human figure created from resin, fibreglass and silicone, among other materials.

Ron Mueck, Mask II, 2001/2002, installation view, Ron Mueck: Sculptures, MCA, Sydney, 2002, mixed media, Collection Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, image courtesy and © the artist

Ron Mueck, Mask II, 2001/2002, installation view, Ron Mueck: Sculptures, MCA, Sydney, 2002, mixed media, Collection Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, image courtesy and © the artist

It was sometimes hard to distinguish the sculptures from the observers with Mueck’s work. In one corner, a huddled, crouching boy stared at his reflection in a mirror. In another a naked woman lay with a just-born baby on her belly. Their veins and wrinkles, sweat and mottled skin were startlingly life-like, but just as real were their expressions. We wondered what they were thinking. We were staring at ourselves.

One of my all-time favourite festival shows was Back to Back Theatre performing Small Metal Objects on the Circular Quay concourse in 2008. There was no set or lighting or curtain. The only indication something was going on was us, an audience, sitting in rows of raised seating wearing headphones opposite the ferry wharves and below the train station. We watched real-life commuters, tourists, joggers and workers walking past.

They stared at us, we stared at them. We wondered who in this view of the real world was the show.

“I cooked a roast last night,” said a voice in our headphones. “What sort?” said another. “I think it was chicken,” the first voice replied. It took a few minutes to scan the moving figures and then we saw them. Steve, played by Simon Laherty, and Gary, played by Allan V. Watt, standing having a conversation on the quay concourse, their miked words fed to our ears.

In a heart-swelling meditation on human worth, set against a tale of street drug-selling, momentous things happened in a normally unnoticed world.

“I want people to see me,” Steve says. “I want to be a full human being.”

Directed by Bruce Gladwin, Small Metal Objects was pure, open-hearted and breathtaking. It forever made the everyday look different. Standing on that spot at Circular Quay 10 years later still conjures up memories of Steve and Gary.

In 2010 heroes arrived with British writers and performers Tim Key, Katy Wix, Anna Crilly, Jonny Sweet and Tom Basden.

In Slutcracker, performed at the Seymour Centre, Key, a British comedian and poet, performed tiny soliloquies of verse written in small coloured notebooks placed in his suit pockets. They are funny and sad and raunchy and moving and, often, sneak up on you with who Key is writing about.

”Phil kissed Liz/And made her feel weird/Because the saliva fell on her fillings/And it fizzed/And because he clutched her arse/While he kissed her/And because it hadn’t happened for a while/And, principally, she was the Queen.’’

Key made my heart flutter with his quietly heady, halting and off-kilter poems.

In the same venue he joined Basden, Crilly, Sweet and Wix for Party, a play about five middle-class students misguidedly writing a manifesto for their right-on new political party.

None of them really knows what they believe, least of all what politics are about, but they waffle ineffectively, and hilariously, on in a suburban English shed while Key, as the baffled Duncan, hopes there is lemon drizzle cake.

It is, Wesley Enoch says, physically impossible to see every show at a Sydney Festival.

I’d give it a try though. To be metres, sometimes millimetres, away from artists and actors, directors, writers and comedians who are heroes in performance and art gets my heart beating rapidly.

Lenny Ann Low is a writer and journalist. She was an arts and entertainment writer and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, a Sydney Writers’ Festival moderator and a performer with physical theatre group Frumpus.