It's a Sin star Nathaniel Hall on abuse, finding humour in dark places and powerful new show Toxic
Toxic is a new play that doesn't shy away from the issues that confront LGBTQ+ people as they come of age
by: Brontë Schiltz
11 Oct 2023
Nathaniel J Hall. Image: Supplied
In 2019, Nathaniel J Hall wrote and performed First Time, in which he confronted his HIV diagnosis. Two years later, he landed a role in It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s critically acclaimed Channel 4 miniseries about the early days of the Aids crisis.
The programme – which marked the continuation of a recent resurgence of fiction exploring HIV following Matthew Warchus’s 2014 film Pride – had a substantial impact, quickly becoming Channel 4’s most-watched drama series of all time.
The Terrence Higgins Trust reported that the broadcast of the first episode alone sparked a 3,100% increase in searches for “Why was Aids so deadly in the ’80s?” and a 2,150% increase for “Can women get Aids?”. The Trust also received 8,207 tests orders during National HIV Testing Week – over three times the previous record of 2,709.
Nathaniel Hall quickly became recognised for both his artistic work and his activism on LGBTQ+ and HIV issues. But behind closed doors, he was in “a very toxic, co-dependent relationship” that lasted five years.
That relationship ended just before the outbreak of Covid-19. “That gave me time to reflect on why I stayed in a relationship that both of us were deeply unhappy in,” he says.
“Then I started speaking to people, and I did some research, and it felt like every gay and bisexual man I spoke to had a similar story, and while what I went through was quite extreme, I realised that there were a lot of people who were struggling in their relationships.”
His research revealed that one in four gay men and one in three bisexual men will experience domestic abuse, and that half of all LGBTQ+ people will experience depression, three in five will experience anxiety and one in eight will attempt suicide. This inspired his new play, Toxic – produced and staged by Dibby Theatre – which grapples with HIV, domestic abuse, homophobia and racism.
“It feels like it’s that compound trauma of growing up in a heterosexist environment – growing up always othered; growing up in unsafe environments, whether it’s at school or in your home life; having to hide who you are – and then you throw HIV into the mix, and the social, political and historical contexts of that, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.
Four decades since the beginning of the Aids crisis, an HIV diagnosis now has significantly less catastrophic implications. Antiretroviral therapy can reduce viral load to the extent that it is undetectable, which means that it cannot be transmitted, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) significantly reduces the risk of infection. But it is a mistake to assume that this means that the issue is entirely resolved, Hall says.
“I think we forget that although we’ve made leaps and bounds – when I came out, you couldn’t get married; you couldn’t even have a civil partner – we can’t just think, ‘Well, we’ve done those things, everything’s OK now.’ My generation are learning from a generation who lived through HIV and Aids, and the generation before them were people who were criminalised, so there’s this ongoing generational trauma, I think.”
Delving into the psychological impact of this inheritance enabled him to explore toxic relationships from a place of compassion. “It’s certainly not a piece of revenge art against my ex,” he says. “What I wanted to look at was, what behaviours did I engage in that were toxic? Where was I co-dependent? Where was I not valuing my own self-worth, and how was that sabotaging the relationship?
“I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, so certain situations can make me feel very, very anxious in a relationship setting, but constantly texting your partner when they’re out and asking them when they’re going to come home actually is quite toxic and controlling, although you don’t necessarily see it that way, because you’re just thinking, I’m feeling this really intense thing and I need the person who will soothe that near me.
“Hopefully, through watching this show, people can maybe see a little bit of where they went wrong and not feel so ashamed about that, because there’s no shame in admitting, ‘I wasn’t the best version of myself in that relationship and I didn’t show up in the way that I wanted to.’ Toxic is really about opening the door for people to be able to do that in their own lives.”
Between the writing of First Time and Toxic, Nathaniel Hall underwent extensive trauma therapy – something that he recognises as a privilege in a time of lengthy NHS therapy waiting lists – and “realised that to stop myself from becoming a victim, I had to make myself the hero in my own story”. He adds, “Storytelling is really powerful. The story you tell yourself about your past can really shape who you become in the future.”
Toxic “sounds like it’s a really heavy show, but it’s a roller coaster ride and it’s really funny, because there’s humour in the darkest of places,” he says. “I hope people come and see it, laugh along with us, cry, hold their own wounded inner child, and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to survive this, and we’re going to thrive after it.’”
Toxic, produced and staged by Dibby Theatre, is showing at HOME, Manchester from 18-28 October. Tickets are available at homemcr.org.
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