First Time: Staying positive in a negative world

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Nathaniel J. Hall in First Time, Photo by Andrews Perry

As part of the Visionari Studio Discoveries programme at York Theatre Royal, award-winning theatre-maker and HIV activist Nathaniel J. Hall presents his autobiographical one-man show First Time.

Fresh from its critically acclaimed 2019 Edinburgh Fringe run, this light-hearted one-hour performance explores the ups and downs of living with HIV through a series of personal letters, confessions, poems and a drag alter-ego sexual health receptionist called Sue. The tone is charming and disarming. “It’s a gay man!” he beams, “Being really fucking gay!” Hall deftly navigates his vulnerable experience to advocate for better contemporary representations of HIV and empower others to live openly with their HIV status. Contributing a millennial Section 28 survivor’s voice to the discourse, he utilises pop hits and listicles to make accessible this topic that has been hanging over the heads of the queer community for so long.

Diagnosed two weeks before his seventeenth birthday, and just months after coming out as gay to his family, Nathaniel kept his HIV status from almost everybody closest to him for over 14 years. The show documents his journey through coping mechanisms, PTSD and stigma with generous sincerity, eliciting raw confessions and hopeful questions through post-show discussions. The everyday details that craft each scene create a humble delicacy that send each moment home.

The space is a minimal but messy 1990s bedroom, simply framed with symbolic triangles of pink, white and sometimes blue, echoing our history of both violence and hope in our treatment of HIV and AIDS. Bins, gin and hanging envelopes litter one corner, a medical screen sitting opposite. An easy, straight life flashes before his eyes as he dances with the Head Girl (“It was the done thing”) at his secondary school prom. A heart-shaped balloon hovers above an innocuous bus stop bench.

Projected images of those failed by the healthcare system during the AIDS crisis and choice quotations from Margaret Thatcher and Sir Cyril James Anderton brings the taste of blood to the mouth, reminding the audience of just how close we still are to these oppressive views and systems that are endangering those at risk.

Hall ends the evening with passion and sensitivity, reciting his galvanising poetry and urging you to write to your MP to make PrEP available to all who need it across the UK. “To Sue,” he toasts, with a lubed-finger lick, acknowledging the huge power of the NHS staff who helped him through his First Time.

Manchester born and bred, Nathaniel acts, writes, directs, inspires and produces bold and provocative socially minded work. Later this year, he will also appear in Russell T Davies’ brand new Channel 4 drama Boys, about AIDS in 1980s Britain.

First Time is directed by Chris Hoyle and designed by Irene Jade, commissioned by Waterside Arts and Creative Industries Trafford, and was developed in association with Dibby Theatre. It continues on its current UK tour, with further details and tickets available here.

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