Hadley Stewart speaks to Nathaniel Hall about stigma, shame and his one-man show, First Time.
Perched on a bench overlooking the M60 motorway in 2003, Nathaniel Hall met a man that would ultimately change the course of his life, and arguably, his career. The actor from Stockport, who is now best-known for his one-man show recounting this chapter of his life, First Time, hadn’t always been able to be so open about his life. Just two weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Hall was told that he was HIV-positive. “Just a child, now forced into a very adult world,” he writes in the play’s introduction. It would take him fifteen years to feel able to share his story with others, and ultimately challenge the stigma that continues to surround people living with the virus. When we speak in December, Hall’s play has just been published in paperback, and he is eagerly awaiting the release of another project, It’s A Sin, a TV series about the AIDS crisis written by Russell T Davies.
In 2017, Hall had a breakdown. “I was in a really toxic relationship, two gay men living out their trauma,” Hall tells me over Zoom. “You know, parties, sex, drugs, sort of the gay stereotype that I always said that I would never become.” Although he tells me there is no shame in that, catching his reflection in the mirror at the end of a house party put things into perspective for him. In fact, this is how you meet Hall at the start of his play. “I didn’t like myself and I didn’t like how I behaved. I realised that it was this underlying trauma was what was driving this behaviour.”
The trauma Hall refers to is something those living with the virus will know too well, and the audience of his play will quickly empathise with. In First Time, he discusses his inability to talk about his status with family and friends, his shame of living with a virus that continues to spark fear and discrimination, and the shock of receiving the “heavy news” of his diagnosis at such a young age. And despite the challenges he faced in writing the play, Hall argues there is some comfort in sharing his lived experience on the pages of a script. “My friend who is a trauma therapist explained it really well to me,” he tells me. “He said that I’ve been living this trauma in my body, and now I’ve put it out there and I’ve turned it into a memory and something I can access.”
Nevertheless, writing the play itself brought up feelings from the past. That must have been tough, I venture. “Writing it was a hard process,” Hall admits. The development process was equally emotionally taxing, with Hall spending three days in a room with the play’s director and another performance artist. “I think I was a puddle at the end of it. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much like I have during the writing of this play.” The opportunity to reflect on the past also called into question the way he remembered certain events in his life. “You start to question what really is the truth, as it was 15 years ago. There are other memories that are not in the play, because they were too difficult for me to recall. So that whole process was very, very tricky.” He adds, “But once you’ve gone through that, it’s very easy.”
Hall warns fellow artists looking to draw on their own life experiences, to think carefully. He acknowledges the need to have the right people around him at the time, yet argues the process can open up feelings that are not yet ready to be unearthed. “When people come up to me and say they want to write a show about their life, I tell them that they need to be prepared,” he says soberly. The perceived success of First Time that played out in the public eye, (Hall was invited onto the BBC Breakfast sofa, for example), didn’t mirror what was going on in the wings. “There was this rise in public of breaking free from shame and moving towards pride, but in private it was like a dog’s dinner,” he recalls. “I was leaving the home that I’d set up with my old partner; I had to move back in with my parents. Going through that process is like a life changing experience.”
The emotional labour it took to write, produce and perform First Time paid off. It enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it received the Venues North Edinburgh Fringe Award and the VAULT Pick of Summerhall. It was also named in The Stage’s Best Shows at Edinburgh Fringe 2019. Aside from the awards, Hall has also triumphed in humanising the experiences of someone living with HIV. He not only rids himself of the shame of the diagnosis on stage, but he challenges and educates the play’s audiences, in turn helping to overturn archaic stereotypes of gay men and those living with the virus.
Said shame is one of the main themes of First Time. I ask Hall if he still feels a sense of shame as a HIV-positive gay man. “Even me now, I’ve done a lot of processing and I’ve had a lot of therapy, and I still have a lot of shame. It’s a bit like coming out as gay or bi or trans, you sort of walk around with a confidence; but it’s almost a false confidence,” shares Hall. “I’m now out and proudly gay, and I’m now out and proudly HIV positive. I can talk about it now. I can talk about it with my hairdresser, or someone at the pub. But I do think there’s a bit of a performance facade when I talk about it. I think you put the wallpaper up when you talk about it, but internally it still impacts you.”
Shame is something that Hall has also come to think about when it comes to the gay community more broadly. “Look at our community, we celebrate pride, but so many of us behind closed doors are drowning in shame. People finding themselves addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex, and that’s all higher in the gay community, and that’s because we’re drowning in shame.” Growing up under Section 28, a piece of legislation that banned any discussion of homosexuality or same-sex relationships in schools, is something that Hall talks about in his play. How does that tie in with this sense of shame? “My whole idea of my sense of self was never celebrated as a child or teenager,” he recalls. “You have to do a lot of daily work that you’re probably doing alright, considering some of the things we’ve been through as a community.”
In addition to being a medium to share a personal journey, the play also educates its audience. For Hall, this comes with a sense of responsibility. “You’re making a show and you’re telling a story and it was quite difficult to get that balance right, and not making it too preachy. We tried many different ways to get that in,” he explains. “I want people to have a laugh and a cry, and to go home with their own take from it.” Ultimately, he wants the audience will come to gain some critical distance from some of the skeletons in their own closets. “My hope is that people come away thinking that they’ve been beating themselves up about something that’s happened in the past, and realising they don’t need to.”
Given the success of First Time, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the play would open more doors for Hall. A friend of Russell T Davies came to see First Time, and after a series of missed opportunities and an Instagram message later, Hall and Davies were meeting up in a coffee shop in Manchester. The screenwriter was initially interested in hearing about Hall’s story as research for his latest project, It’s A Sin, given that the play touches upon parallel themes. Hall was eventually asked to audition for a role, and received the news that he had been cast on the same night he heard that First Time had received a five-star review in The Stage.
The actor is tight-lipped about specific details of It’s A Sin ahead of its TV release in late January, but Hall does give away something about the casting of the gay characters. “Quite radically all the gay characters are played by gay men. I think you’ll notice and you’ll see something very different about the show. That’s because everyone playing those characters, understands the complexities and depths of being gay,” he says. “There’s a whole standing of shame, trauma, bullying and othering that the straight white male actor doesn’t fully understand.”
Hall tells me his positive experience of filming the show’s more intimate scenes is not only thanks to gay actors playing these characters, but the preparation work that was done with an intimacy coordinator. “There was lots of talk about what that sex should be like,” recalls Hall. “I don’t think we get to see the softer side of gay sex. We certainly don’t see that in pornography, and I don’t think we’ve really seen it on TV.” The industry, I reply, seems to have realised the importance of having intimacy coordinators on set. “I’m so pleased that the industry has woken up to it. We have stunt coordinators to look after people’s physical health, and now we have intimacy coordinators to look after people’s emotional wellbeing.”
The pandemic has resulted in Hall’s tour of First Time being put on hold, yet in the meantime he is running a community-led creative outreach project, In Equal Parts, which will seek to educate people about HIV prevention and testing. Hall hopes the initiative will get more people talking about HIV and encourage wider testing. For now, he is looking forward to the reaction to It’s A Sin, something which he thinks is long-overdue. “I think it’s quite shameful that we’ve not had a bigger depiction of the HIV crisis,” he tells me at the end of our call. “I mean, it’s Russell, so it’s going to get people talking for sure. But it will get people talking about the impact that HIV has had on the gay community. I think it’s time, we need to grieve.”
First Time is published by Nick Hern Books. It’s A Sin starts Friday 22 January on Channel 4.
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