Time of his life

Nathaniel Hall’s play First Time not only won him awards but helped him deal with a breakdown after he was diagnosed with HIV

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There’s a photograph of the actor and writer Nathaniel Hall, star of this year’s hit drama It’s A Sin, sitting on a bench in a park in Stockport. It was here, when he was 16 years old and waiting to pick up the white tuxedo he’d ordered for his school prom, that he met the man he now refers to as “Sam”. Sam (not his real name) was the man who Hall had his first sexual experience with, and Sam was the man who infected Hall with HIV.

“It’s relatively easy to get an HIV test and you can get a really quick turnaround these days.”

The story of this encounter and the ramifications it has on his life is the subject of First Time, Hall’s award-winning play that is currently on tour and scheduled for a five-night run at Manchester’s Contact theatre. Although the premise of the play might sound a bit grim, Hall insists there’s a lot of humour in the story.

“It’s hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. People often say: ‘I didn’t expect it to be as funny!’ But you know, real life is funny.”

Having learnt that he was HIV positive, Hall “boxed it up” and told very few people for 15 years.

“Then I basically had a mental breakdown and that’s where you meet me in First Time. It’s 2017 and I’m there in my dressing gown with white powder on my face and the show is starting and I’m not ready.”

It was, in fact, during this “chaotic” period in 2017 that Hall decided to write the play. The act of creating it was a way of breaking the silence about his diagnosis.

“There was a moment I caught myself in a mirror,” he says, “I was still awake two days after a house party. My then partner had gone out to work and I looked in the mirror and realised I didn’t recognise that person. It was this trauma, pain, sadness and shame that I had not dealt with and that was a pivotal moment for me.

“It forced my hand to go public about my diagnosis because once the ball was rolling, I realised that I was going to have to tell my family. It’s like the spotlight was on me and I couldn’t keep hiding. I never expected in any way that it would have the impact and the success it’s had.”

The play has met with critical acclaim and won awards at both the Vault festival in London and the Edinburgh Fringe. Hall, now 34, grew up around theatre.

“I was in my mum’s womb when she was on stage. My mum is a teacher, but she was into amateur dramatics. I went into amateur dramatics as a kid and was in National Youth Theatre. I was in all the school plays, in the musicals, and then I went and studied theatre and was working in theatre right from graduation.”

He speaks with great warmth about his family and it’s clear that the delay in revealing his HIV status was in part connected to his fears about how they would react. Coming out as gay had been easy – “My mum told me I was gay when I was 16” – but he struggled to tell his parents about his diagnosis for years.
In the end, he wrote a letter.

“That allowed them to have a reaction without me being present. I’ve got a few friends who talk about this in terms of coming out as gay. No matter how much someone loves you, they can’t hide that first reaction, whether that’s anger or pain, and often that first thing you see on their faces can be hurtful so actually writing a letter was great.”

And the reaction to his letter? “Pretty underwhelming” he laughs. “My sister texted me and said ‘I still love you’ and my mum turned up at my house the next day with the house plant. I said to her: ‘Why did you buy a house plant!?’ She said: ‘I was wandering around the supermarket and I didn’t know what to buy. What do you buy when someone tells you that? Champagne didn’t feel right.’”

Nathaniel Hall in First Time

The play, back on stage this year after a hiatus in its run due to the pandemic, returns at an important time. HIV is back in the public consciousness, thanks to the compelling Russell T Davies five-part drama about a group of young people living through the HIV global epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hall appears in episode three of It’s A Sin, playing Donald Bassett, with whom fellow actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander) has a brief relationship. At the end of the episode Ritchie learns from his agent that Donald has given up acting and “gone home”.

“There’s a lot of boys who go home these days,” says the agent. “And I don’t think we’ll ever see him again.” It’s a poignant moment in the drama that
hits just as another character, Colin, is struck down by the virus.

Hall is aware of the huge impact the show had on the national consciousness. “I got lots of messages, particularly from gay men, who would say thank you. For them it was painful but it was cathartic, and it was important because it finally told that story. They felt like that part of history had been forgotten. Of course, it’s very telling that, in the UK and America, the HIV epidemic disproportionately affected gay men, therefore the heterosexual population sort of forgot about it. To have this on primetime Channel 4 is really validating.”

But his participation in the programme and its subject matter did worry Hall. “It’s A Sin is about the beginnings of HIV. It’s when people were worrying about whether you could sleep together, and kiss and touch, and when they were smashing cups after someone with HIV had used them. I worried about how that would be received. But it actually shows the power of really good drama and storytelling. What happened was all those conversations about how HIV has changed could happen because 19 million people had streamed this programme, and everyone was talking about it. I mean, every radio station and TV station even for weeks afterwards was still talking about it.

“Publications that wouldn’t normally talk about HIV – like Vogue and Cosmopolitan – ran features on it. It was incredible to be part of that.”

Another result of the show was a rise in HIV testing. The first episode aired just before the start of national HIV testing week in February and a record number of people came forward. The need for testing is one piece of the puzzle that will help get levels of HIV transmission down to zero by 2030, says Hall, a government-set goal that Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has also signed up to.

“The idea of testing regularly for something has come into our consciousness. It’s something quite normalised now. It’s relatively easy to get a HIV test and you can get a really quick turnaround these days, not the two week wait that I had when I was diagnosed.”

HIV is still out there. In 2019 data from the Terrence Higgins Trust revealed about 105,200 people were living with HIV in the UK and, of those, around 6,600 people were undiagnosed.

“It’s important for people to know that if you do get a diagnosis it’s going to be all right,” says Hall. “You’re going to need to access services and support and there are loads of organisations out there. So don’t be scared and don’t wait to access support because if you delay, you could make yourself very sick. As much as I go on about how you can live with HIV and how things have changed, no one would want to catch HIV. It is an illness and my life would be easier without it for sure.”

Developed and delivered alongside his play, In Equal Parts is an outreach programme that includes a series of short films about people in Greater Manchester who are living with HIV, workshops and a digital resource for schools.

“It’s about taking what’s in First Time beyond the stage and inspiring other people with HIV to find the skills to tell their own story,” Hall explains.

He hopes the outreach work and the play itself will help deliver messages about how HIV has changed over the years and what it now means to live with the virus. He himself is now undetectable and one of the points he wants to get across is about what’s termed “U equals U” – undetectable equals untransmissable: the fact that when a person with HIV is on regular treatment that lowers the amount of the virus in their body to undetectable levels, there is no chance that they can pass the virus on to others. Public knowledge about advances in HIV treatment, indeed about HIV itself, is very low, he says, and there’s still a lot of stigma about the disease that he hopes to tackle.

HIV medication has “few side-effects… it’s the weight of the psychological impact of HIV and the shame and stigma of it that can cause more harm. The impact of that can be worse than side-effects of any drug that you’re taking. It’s everyone’s responsibility to break down that stigma and shame and to normalise HIV.”

At its core, he says, First Time is about shame, revealing that he gets thousands of messages from people confessing secrets that aren’t necessarily about sexual health.

“I had a message from one woman who was in an abusive relationship and the play inspired her to break free of that. Shame eats away at people. I think this show puts two fingers up to that and says you only get one shot in life – don’t waste it feeling ashamed of something.

“In 2017, when I had that breakdown, that’s when I realised I’d bought into the narrative of shame because I wasn’t telling people. I realised that I did feel ashamed, and I’d internalised that.

“Then I started thinking, what happens if I just say it? If I say: ‘I’m HIV positive and I don’t care?’ When I did that life changed remarkably. Speak your truth. Then magic can happen.”

First Time is at the Contact in Manchester on 30 Nov-4 Dec. See nathanieljhall.co.uk/first-time

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