Nathaniel Hall contracted HIV the first time he had sex, aged 16. Receiving the diagnosis just two weeks after his 17th birthday, it took him fourteen years to open up to his family. A year later, Hall has written a play about his experiences, which he also performs. It is making its premiere at Sale’s Waterside Arts until 1st December, coinciding with World Aids Day 2018. By dramatising the events of his own life, Nathaniel Hall aims to raise awareness of HIV and break the stigma surrounding it. Surprisingly positive and funny, First Time is a deeply personal, inspiring one-man show about staying upbeat and resilient, despite being diagnosed as HIV+ and having had a “Britney Spears circa 2007 breakdown“.
“There is no blame and no shame in contracting a virus.”
As you enter the theatre, Nathaniel Hall greets the audience, apologising for not being ready, as he cleans his messy room, wearing a dressing gown, and dancing along to Wham’s Club Tropicana, where drinks certainly are not free. After apologising for looking like “a total trashbag“, Hall takes us on a journey through his life, starting with his high school prom, in 2003.
As he waits for his cream tuxedo on a bench in Stockport, Nathaniel meets a man who looks like Will Young, devouring a stolen Boots meal deal. This is Sam, Nathaniel’s first sexual partner after coming to terms with his sexuality. Hall shows how he was swept up in the whirlwind romance that followed, transporting the audience back to 2003 with funny, authentic details like playing Snake on his Nokia 3310 phone and listening to Steps’ ‘Summer of Love’. Sam said that he had a clean bill of health, and when the moment came, he pulled out a safer sex packet, but only used the lube.
Three months later, after breaking up with Sam, Nathaniel fell ill, strikingly portrayed on stage by him popping a love heart balloon. In November 2003, he receives his diagnosis, and a high pitched ringing pierces our ears. Deftly changing the tone of the play, Hall’s fun, teenage years of innocence are shattered as he is thrust into adulthood, and the realisation that he is HIV+. It is an emotional, sobering moment.
Hall proves that advances in medicine mean that this diagnosis is no longer seen as death sentence, destroying the perceptions and stigma that surround the virus. Hall shows the realities of the treatment, and the effects it has on the body, eating tablets by the bowlful. He emotionally takes us through the fourteen years that followed in the form of a list of things that happened after his diagnosis. Some of these things are inspirational, some are funny, some are heart breaking.
Writing a letter to his sixteen year old self was a way that Hall managed to cope with the shame and anxiety he felt. Another lifeline he had was the George’s House Trust and their positive speaking programme. However, his recovery was no walk in the park. I was moved to tears as Hall depicts his many breakdowns and times of despair, and I came to the stark realisation that he is the same age I am.
The fact that this young man had a traumatic ordeal, when he should have been in the prime of his life, is upsetting but his resilience is admirable. I also admire his courage of being able to translate these experiences into a play that is sobering, educative, yet also upbeat and positively inspirational. “I survived” he says. Many didn’t. A candlelit vigil is held as images are shown to remember those who sadly died as a result of contracting HIV. I wasn’t the only one who openly wept at this.
First Time is a deeply personal, emotional account of surviving, and coming to terms with HIV. It is profoundly moving, yet remarkably funny, which is all made possible by Nathaniel Hall, who is an extraordinary person. His one-man show is a phenomenal success, proving that he is a talented writer and performer. It also proves that LGBT education should be compulsory in all schools.
On World Aids Day, I will wear my red ribbon with pride.