Nathaniel Hall’s First Time, an autobiographical show about the artist’s experience with contracting HIV and “staying positive in a negative world”, is coming to Manchester’s Contact Theatre for 5 days, from the 30th of November onwards. On that occasion, I talked to Nathaniel – best known for starring in the acclaimed series It’s a Sin – about the story behind First Time and his experiences with developing and performing the show.
Nathaniel is a Greater Mancunian born and bred. He lived in Australia for a few years, but he has spent most of his life in Manchester. I asked Nathaniel if there is any difference in performing the autobiographical show in the city that means so much to him, compared to performing in other cities throughout the country.
“If you’re playing for a home crowd, that’s always really nice, and obviously when you’re in your home city there’s lots of people who know you, which is great.”
“But actually, the audience we get to this show is universally really warm and friendly, and it’s LGBTQ inclusive, so it feels like a warm, friendly space, and it’s a real joy to perform it. But yes, coming back to the home city is always special.”
Nathaniel has been performing First Time for over three years now, and it has undergone many changes to reach its definite form. The show was commissioned by Waterside Arts in Sale in 2018. Nathaniel’s story went viral and the show quickly became a hit. He was invited to BBC Breakfast, and media outlets such as BBC News and BuzzFeed News wrote articles about his experiences.
“The feedback we got from audiences and reviewers was overwhelmingly positive, and we knew there was plenty demand for the show further. We started talking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is one of the best places to bring a show if you want to get somewhere. And to do that, we had to make a lot of changes, because the shows that end up at Fringe tend to be only and hour, so you have to be very very quick.”
“And again for this tour, the show itself had a bit of a glow-up in terms of its design. And you know, you tweak and change depending on how audiences respond to the show as it moves along.”
Nathaniel assured me, however, that First Time is currently in its final and best version. When asked about his plans for the future, he said that he’s ready for a new challenge. A spring tour is in planning, but after that Nathaniel will move on to other projects.
Nathaniel contracted the HIV virus from his first sexual partner, at the age of 16 years old. First Time tells the story of Nathaniel’s life from that moment to the present day, showing how he coped with the diagnosis and how his approach has changed throughout the years. I asked him what the idea behind creating First Time was, and if it was meant to be a form of auto-therapy.
“It was all a part of the journey of coming out with my HIV status. I lived with HIV for about 15 years before I made the show. I was diagnosed when I was 16 and I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t tell very many people, I kept it very secret. There was a lot of shame around the diagnosis that I carried.”
Nathaniel brought back the memories from his past, of how that shame was having a negative impact on his life. He admitted that the shame fuelled him to treat people badly, as well as to allow himself to be treated badly by others. His life was a never-ending party, he was stuck in a really bad relationship.
“I was leaning very heavily on drugs and alcohol. I had this moment when I looked at myself in the mirror, still awake two days after a house party, and when [I thought to myself]: ‘I don’t recognise you anymore. You’re not the person that you once were.’”
Eventually, he decided that it was time to get rid of the sadness and shame. “I thought: ‘Well, if you tried to tell your family for so long and you’ve not been able to, you’re gonna need to force your hand in some way.’”
“Going on the journey to make the show was kind of forcing me to go public, which then sort of forced me to tell my family, and that’s all encapsulated in the show. And you experience that process through the show.”
I asked Nathaniel if his parents and his closest family had seen the show, and what impact it had had on them.
“It’s a tough watch for my parents and my other family members. My mom’s seen it twice, my parents came to see it in Edinburgh the second time, they sat in the front row. My mom cried during the first scene, and I thought: ‘This is the funny bit, don’t cry at this bit!’. So I think she was just overwhelmed.”
“The show goes to dark places. You know, I talk about some of the challenging times that I’ve gone through in my life and that makes it actually difficult for the parent to watch. But I see they’re super proud and super supportive about everything that I do.”
In the show, Nathaniel relives many scenes from his past, playing different versions of himself. I was interested whether playing oneself makes the role easier to perform or, on the contrary, the emotional connection makes it more difficult.
Nathaniel agreed with the latter, saying that it is indeed more difficult. “You know, as an actor, what we do is looking at other people, and kind of mimicking them and taking on their attributes. But when you play yourself, you have to do a lot of looking inward and looking at yourself. You have to look at how you behave and act, and that can be quite a disheartening experience. Because, you know, we often have a lot of insecurities about ourselves, how we speak, how we move, how we behave. So that’s actually quite a difficult process to do.”
He reminisced how the most difficult part of the creative process was writing the show, “looking back at the past and analysing it”, discovering what had happened and why it had happened, and “discovering things in a new light as an adult.”
Nathaniel has no doubts that the show helped him. “Before I went on this journey I was living in the trauma of everything that had happened to me, and allowing that to affect and impact my life. Basically, all that stuff is still living within your body, and actually once I processed it, it’s now a memory of something that happened in the past. It’s a story that I can tell, without it making me feel those things that I felt in the past.”
Nathaniel agreed, however, that the show is still physically and emotionally demanding for him. He works with the team of therapists, always making sure that performing does not have a negative impact on his mental wellbeing.
Nathaniel starred in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, an acclaimed series about a group of queer friends set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a show that made a social impact in the UK and around the world, breaking taboos surrounding the subjects of HIV and AIDS. I asked Nathaniel how he had gotten involved in the project; he is, after all, a theatre-maker by trade.
“When I found out Russel [T Davies] was writing It’s a Sin, it was about the time I was making my show, and then I said to my agent: ‘That’s a show that I want to be in.’”
“I was really professional and just sent him a message on Instagram (laughs). I don’t recommend anyone does that. I didn’t expect a response but I just said I’ve written this thing about my experience and I know you’re writing this thing, maybe we should have a chat. And he just messaged straight back and said: ‘Let’s go for a coffee.’ Which we did, and I had this ‘pinch me’ moment where I was sat with one of my absolute living legends and had a great chat with him.”
“He was really generous with his time and he wanted to hear my story because he was writing about Colin Morris-Jones [one of the main characters in It’s a Sin], you know, who gets HIV from his first time. And we had a great chat and he’s a really friendly, lovely man. At the end of it he said: ‘Well, you’re too old for any of the main characters, but there might be a role for you in there somewhere.’”
“And then his producer came to see my show before I went to Edinburgh and I was invited to audition. I do stress that I still auditioned like everyone else, but it was fantastic. I got the role. What an honour it was for someone living with HIV to be in that show and be able to tell those stories, for the people who I guess in a sense feel a little bit forgotten, because we haven’t told that story from a British perspective in British film or television in the 40 years of the epidemic. So it was a real privilege to be involved.”
Indeed, although some pioneers of modern queer art, such as the legendary British avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman, created extensive works about the epidemic and followed their experiences with AIDS, it had never become a subject of discussions in the mainstream. It’s a Sin was first such undertaking aimed at a mainstream audience, and there is no denying that it achieved its goal.
Before starting the project, however, Nathaniel had expressed worries that the show focuses on a gay version of the story. I asked him if now, a year after the show’s release, he thinks that it helped people realise that HIV is not only a gay illness.
“I was more worried that the show would kind of allow all the myths around HIV to resurface because it would show people smashing cups and screaming, and you know, all that fear and panic and paranoia that was around in the 1980s.”
“But actually, on both counts, what we saw was HIV got back onto the national conversation, and it was being talked about on every radio station, every news station, every chat show. And all the amazing HIV charities and HIV activists who do that activism often for free, jumped on that opportunity to re-educate people, to tell people about PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis that prevents getting HIV, available in the UK for free; you can access more information about it here], to remind people again that testing is really important. And to tell people how HIV has changed, which is amazing.”
In the UK HIV does disproportionately affect gay men. Statistics mentioned by Nathaniel show that gay men are about 50% of people living with HIV, but that population is much smaller than the heterosexual one. Nathaniel is advocating for more stories of heterosexual people living with HIV to be told.
Nathaniel and his team made a series of short films called HIV + Me during lockdown. They tell the stories of people who are not gay men. “We’ve got Vaughn, who’s a black British woman, and Mark who is an ex injection drug user, and used to sleep on the streets of Manchester.”
“It’s important to try to challenge what people’s perceptions are, and to remind people that, you know, if you’re sexually active, everyone is at risk and should be getting tested regularly and taking precautions. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a big proponent for getting tested and reminding people that they should be getting tested. Whenever I go to the hospital, I’m always on social media talking about that process, and just reminding gently that it’s everyone’s responsibility to end HIV, both LGBTQ and otherwise.”
Recently, The Mancunion has covered a worrying increase in spikings in nightclubs in Manchester and all over the country. It is a pressing topic in the student community, and there are many rumours circulating around it. One of the rumours that came out was that people are getting spiked by injections, and when tested for HIV in the following days, the results are positive.
Scientifically, it is impossible to get an HIV positive status a few days after getting infected, and the window period for HIV testing is at least a few weeks. These rumours clearly show that there still is plenty of misinformation about HIV, including basic facts about the disease. I asked Nathaniel whether he has heard these rumours, and if so, how hearing them makes him feel.
“I have heard about the rumours, and I can categorically say that they are just rumours. I understand and I have a lot of compassion for the fear around HIV. I know the fear I felt when I had to go through a test, although that was 18 years ago in a very different world. I do understand that, but for me the real important thing is to normalise HIV.”
Nathaniel stressed how important it is for people to understand that HIV is a really treatable condition. He laughed mentioning that his doctor always says: “I would rather diagnose you with HIV than diabetes because it’s much easier to manage.”
“Now, with modern medications, I take one tablet a day, I’m undetectable, I can’t pass it on to my partner. The NHS just approved two-monthly injectable medications for those people who find taking daily medication difficult, which is a great option for people to reduce their medication regime.”
Coming back to the topic of the spiking rumours, Nathaniel mentioned that they remind him about the importance of telling people that HIV is not a death sentence. “It’s important to deescalate rumours very, very quickly and say, categorically, there has been no know incident of a needle stick injury resulting in someone contracting HIV.”
“But also, if people are concerned about that, they should go out and seek out reliable information, speak to an HIV organisation, like George House Trust in Manchester, or speak to a trusted or reliable doctor or health professional.”
He agreed that the spikings are incredibly worrying, and people need to be really vigilant and look out for each other on nights out. HIV is not really a thing to be worrying about then: “You should be worrying about the people that are potentially perpetrating those crimes.”
I asked Nathaniel whether, as an HIV activist, he feels as if it is primarily his responsibility to educate people about the virus. Nathaniel provided an example of the anti-racist movement, and how his black friends have always said that it’s not enough to say “I’m not racist”, that it’s important to be actively anti-racist.
With LGBTQ people and HIV, it’s the same. “It’s everyone’s job. Any cause needs allies. If you ever hear a rumour or a joke that is in bad taste, or misinformation, just correct it. You’ve got the right information and you’ve got the tools in your hand, to make life for people that have HIV better and easier and make the world a more inclusive place.”
Although the societal attitudes to HIV might have improved over the years, the situation is far from ideal. Nathaniel agrees that he noticed that the world has been changing for the better. He is not sure, however, whether it is because the attitudes have changed so significantly, or because he has matured and moves towards people who build up his self-worth and self-esteem.
“I can’t say which that is, it’s probably a combination of both. I think there is a greater understanding that people with HIV are not a danger. In fact, if someone’s on medication like me, in terms of HIV, I’m actually the safest person, because I know my status and I know I’m undetectable.”
“But I have faced stigma and I’m only one person. I’ve got a lot of friends living with HIV who have faced discrimination in the workplace and stigma from potential partners, and all that sorts of things. And it does happen, it’s still out there. But for me, in 2017, when I went on this journey, it was the change in the mindset where I said: ‘Well, if I go public, and I talk about it, I’m not ashamed anymore.’”
“Now, because I live openly with it, no one can weaponise it and make me feel bad about it or make me feel worse. Because I know my self-worth and my self-esteem is worth more than that. That’s why I encourage the world where people with HIV can talk about their HIV status as readily as you might say that you’ve got diabetes, or you’re popping to the doctor for a flu jab. It should be as normalised.”
Public Health England has a goal to end HIV transmissions by 2030. I asked Nathaniel if he has confidence in this plan and what he thinks about the future for HIV.
“I do have confidence in the plan.” – says Nathaniel – “Actually, I don’t credit any of the hard work on that with our government. And all the hard work has been done by the HIV commission, and that’s a consortium of charities and nongovernmental organisations working so hard to get to that point.”
“I think it is achievable”, he added, stressing that more routine testing is required. One success story that gives much hope for the future is related to vertical transmission, which is transmission from mother to baby during childbirth or breastfeeding. “In the UK, it has been reduced to I think less than 0.01%, or something that is extremely low. And that’s because the routine testing programme was implemented to expectant mothers to protect them and their babies. And if somebody does test positive during that, that moment they’re put on medication and the precautions are taken to make sure it’s not transmitted to the baby. That’s a real success story.”
“That shows you that if you normalise routine testing, you can close in on the cases and make sure that anyone that is HIV positive is on medication and is not passing on to anyone else. And by doing that, eventually, you close in on HIV from all sides, and it has nowhere to go.”
This way, me and Nathaniel ended our talk with a great deal of hope for the future. There clearly is confidence in the HIV community, largely thanks to the HIV activists like Nathaniel and shows like First Time and It’s a Sin.
“I’m really hopeful for 2030. It’s gonna take a Herculean effort, but I think we’ll get there.”
First Time runs at Contact Theatre from 30th November until 4th December. To keep up to date with Nathaniel, or to learn more about him, check out his website. You can also give him a follow on Instagram and Twitter @nathanieljhall.