Ahead of World Aids Day, actor, writer, and HIV activist Nathaniel Hall talks about his play FIRST TIME, his role in Russell T Davies’ hit series IT’S A SIN and his work as a HIV activist.
Can you remember your first time? Nathaniel Hall most certainly does. In fact, he can’t forget it. Nathaniel’s first ever sexual experience resulted in him being diagnosed as HIV+ two weeks before his 17th birthday – a secret he kept from his family for nearly 15 years.
In 2017, aged 31, Nathaniel had a breakdown and came out to his family as HIV+. He also created a gut wrenchingly honest and equally hilarious play about his experience, aptly named FIRST TIME.
Exploring the ups and downs of living with HIV since age 16, FIRST TIME is an autobiographical solo show by the acclaimed actor, writer, and HIV activist, about a gay and HIV+ man growing up in a straight and HIV- world.
Since 2018, the play has toured across the UK and has been seen by over 3.3k people. It is currently running at Manchester’s Contact Theatre until 4 December.
Ahead of its run, and World Aids Day, Nathaniel Hall took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Rebecca Baines of Frankly My Dear UK about his play, his role in Russell T Davies’ hit series IT’S A SIN and his work as a HIV activist.
Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): You launched FIRST TIME in Manchester in 2018 for World Aids Day. Have your feelings around the show changed at all in the time that you’ve been away, and how does it feel to bring it to Contact Theatre and back to the city where it all started?
Nathaniel Hall (NH): Contact has a really special place in my heart because I was in their young company when I was younger. They’ve been really instrumental in supporting my development as an artist, so it feels really lovely to be coming back to my home town and also to a venue that is really special to me. Their ethos and the work they do is really special and has a real resonance with my work, so that’s really exciting. I’ve performed the show many times now and I’m always bowled over by the response that the show gets every single evening, and the impact that the show and my story have had on people.
FMD: What was the process like of having to revisit your story and to put it all down on paper when you created the show?
NH: Well it gets easier the more you perform it, but that process was really the art therapy. There was a lot of unresolved trauma that was impacting my life and in 2017 I came to the realisation that I was in the middle of what could probably be described as a mental breakdown. I was leaning very heavily on alcohol and drugs, in a very bad relationship, my career had stagnated, and I was having lots of flashbacks. That’s when I started my journey of telling my family and becoming open about my HIV status. It’s not very often you look back at your life in such detail and I really had to try and piece together my past. I live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and because I’ve processed the story, it’s now much easier for me to tell it because it is just a story that happened to me in the past. I now know that I am safe in the present.
FMD: Could you tell us about some of the charities and organisations that you’re working alongside as part of your ongoing activism?
NH: The show is partnered with George House Trust, who cover Greater Manchester and the North West. They provide ongoing support for people suffering with HIV. They’re able to offer financial support, financial advisors, counsellors, group events and so many other things. As we’ve taken the show on tour we’ve tried to connect with local HIV organisations along the way too. It’s really important to me that the people that this show is about and for come through the door as well, and feel that this is a safe space for them to hear a story that might resonate with them and perhaps discuss it in a post-show discussion.
FMD: You played Donald Bassett in IT’S A SIN on Channel 4. How did you come to be involved in the creation of that?
NH: I was actually premiering FIRST TIME when I found out that Russell was writing IT’S A SIN. A friend of his came to see the show and told him he needed to come and see it but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it. When we knew we were going to do the show again I just sent him a message on Instagram and he got back to me straight away and arranged to meet me for coffee. It was such a pinch me moment sitting opposite one of my absolute heroes, but he was very gracious and wanted to hear all about my story so he could sense check some of the content he was writing for the show. Then I was invited to audition and I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to be involved. I was like a kid in a candy shop meeting all the incredible actors and crew and getting to see how a show like that gets put together.
FMD: Without giving too much away, what can audience members expect from FIRST TIME?
NH: It’s a real rollercoaster of emotions, described as hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. It’s a one person show but it’s certainly not just me sat on a chair telling a story for 75 minutes. It’s very theatrical, we have confetti canons and incredible lighting, lots of audience participation and should have people screaming with laughter one minute and sobbing the next. People often come away and say they didn’t expect it to be so funny and even people who haven’t directly been affected by HIV will be able to resonate with it. It’s a story about coming of age, shame, first love, family relationships and ultimately, it’s a story of hope. We do leave on a real high, and it’s a great way to show your ally ship, you’ll be able to donate to George House Trust who’s our charity partner and there’s a moment in the show where we reflect on the wider story of HIV. We remember the 35 million people who have died from HIV and Aids, the 38 million people who still live with it and reflect on the fact that this is an epidemic that isn’t over, and that there is still work to be done to end it and eradicate the stigma around it.
FIRST TIME runs at Contact Theatre, Manchester until 4 December 2021
Rebecca Baines is a charity worker from Manchester, with a lifelong love of theatre and music. Having trained as a classical musician and actress, performing in venues including the Notre Dame and St Marks Basilica, Rebecca is now more likely to be found in the audience with her daughter.