Reliant on drugs and alcohol, in a toxic relationship, and suffering from complex PTSD and anxiety issues, Nathaniel Hall was at a party in 2017 when he experienced his “lightbulb moment”.
“I walked passed a mirror and didn’t recognise myself,” he says “I realised I was on a slippery slope and was losing my grip on reality. I knew then that I needed to sort it out,” he says.
The result is his play First Time categorising the ups and downs of living with HIV since the age of 16, and hiding the truth from his nearest and dearest.
“I’m always encouraging other people to be bold, truthful and out there so I had to take a dose of my own medicine”
Coming to Oxford’s North Wall, Nathaniel’s personal experiences of growing up gay and HIV+ in a straight and HIV- world have gone down a storm, with rave reviews, and considerable coverage of the issues involved.
So why out himself in this way? “As a theatre maker I’m always encouraging other people to be bold, truthful, so I had to take a dose of my own medicine.
“But it did mean I needed to tell my family the truth to be able to make this show. So in 2017 I wrote them a letter and told them the whole story, so they had time to process it in private.”
And how did that go down? “Better than expected actually. My sister just texted me saying “Yup, still luv ya”. I suppose I was expecting the worst, just because I had lived with it for so long, I felt I had done something wrong, and then kept it from my family.
“My mum was the one who knew I was gay aged 16 and offered me the chance to talk about it. she made it easy for me to come out”
“It was hard for them at the premiere – because there was my story warts and all – but it’s made us stronger as a family. My mum was the one who knew I was gay aged 16, and offered me the chance to talk about it, so she made it easy for me to come out,” he says.
First Time premiered in Manchester in 2018 and went to Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 by which time Nathaniel had got used to the premise: “To be honest writing it and reliving all those personal memories was the hard bit. I threw everything at it and said everything I wanted to say which gave me a lot of freedom. I wanted it to be authentic even though it was really exposing and to tell it in the way I wanted to tell it.
“It did give me a shame hangover for a while every time I performed it, but making the show was part of the healing process, it was like therapy – reliving the trauma and then being able to be objective about it – which helped me not to not be seen as an HIV victim because now it’s treatable.
“to get that kind of response worldwide to it’s a sin was quite overwhelming. We we’re all blindsided by it really”
The ironic twist was that word soon got back to Russell T Davies, who was writing It’s A Sin, the TV drama that swept the country in lockdown about the HIV pandemic amongst a group of friends in London.
Russell got in touch with Nathaniel, firstly to make sure his script was authentic, and then to ask Nathaniel to audition, winning the part of Ritchie’s boyfriend Donald.”I had to really pinch myself because Russell is one of my writing heroes, but more than that it was an honour to be telling these HIV stories,” he says.
And what of It’s A Sin‘s massive success? “We knew it would be special because I read the script and it’s so powerful but to get that kind of response worldwide was quite overwhelming. We we’re all blindsided by it really.”
“It did give me a shame hangover for a while every time I performed it, but making the show was part of the healing process – it was like therapy”
“But we need to be talking openly and honestly about HIIV, to encourage anyone sexually active to be regularly checked, as if you are going to the dentist.”
As for First Time, Nathaniel says it’s funny, sad, interactive and includes quizzes, songs and a candlelit (electric) vigil for the 35 million who died from AIDS. “We get through it together,” he smiles, “but bring a tissue.”
First Time runs at Oxford’s North Wall, on October 19. Tickets at https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/first-time/