Nathaniel J Hall: “Sometimes survival means knowing when to leave”

The Manchester-based theatre-maker and actor returns to the stage with a play that unpicks a toxic relationship and holds a mirror to queer shame.

If there’s one thing that Nathaniel J Hall knows, it’s that he doesn’t want to be famous. The theatre-maker and actor found himself flirting with fame, having starred alongside the likes of Olly Alexander and Lydia West in the record-breaking, tear-jerking, lockdown-binging Channel 4 series, ‘It’s A Sin’. What happened next was almost predictable: glamorous parties, unsolicited DMs, and even a Coca-Cola campaign. But Hall wasn’t feeling it. “I was surrounded by the who’s who of the TV industry,” he recalls. “And what an incredible opportunity. But it made me realise that I quite like my quiet life here in Salford with my dogs.”

Today, however, that quiet life isn’t exactly going to plan. Hall is in the final stages of preparation before his show hits the stage at Manchester HOME in mid-October, yet the pneumatic drilling outside his window hasn’t stopped all morning. Fortunately, tools are downed moments before we start our video call. His dogs, on the other hand, do make an appearance during our interview.

In addition to learning about the downsides of fame from working on ‘It’s A Sin’, Hall tells me that the show’s creator, Russell T Davies, is now a friend and mentor. “The story of ‘It’s A Sin’ and the fact that Russell didn’t write it straight away, because he’d experienced and lived through that, taught me a lot,” he explains. “I think he took the time to process what had happened and found the right time to make sure that piece of art was put into the world when the world was ready for it.”

It’s these lessons that he has taken with him as a theatre-maker today: “If I have a story in me now, I think about why I want to tell it, when do I want to tell it, and who do I want to tell it to.”

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Right now, it’s time for Hall to tell the story of a toxic relationship. It was 2019 and Hall’s career was, in his words, skyrocketing. His one man show, ‘First Time’, which recalls the events surrounding him receiving his HIV diagnosis, was on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show would later win two awards and receive a 5-star review in The Stage. It was also around that time that he received a phone call saying he had got the part in ‘It’s A Sin’. “It felt like I’d escaped the shackles of the shame of living with HIV, that had held me back for so long,” he says. Yet behind the scenes, things were very different. “My personal life was a real mess.”

There were hints of trouble in the wings, though. In the opening scene of ‘First Time’, Hall’s character is running around the stage in his underwear, almost manic, having not slept in days. “So I was alluding to that,” he tells me of what was happening behind closed doors. “But ‘Toxic’ is delving into more of what was going on and what that means. My life has been plagued by toxic relationships, both in a romantic sense as a long term partner, and also in a more casual sense in terms of sexual relations. I wanted to explore why that was.”

Hall’s latest offering, ‘Toxic’, is set in Manchester in 2017, where two broken hearts (played by Hall and Josh-Susan Enright) meet at a sweaty queer warehouse party. But their past experiences will mean that the couple is doomed from the start. “The audience will watch how they spectacularly fuck it up,” shares Hall.

The play is semi-autobiographical, having drawn from other people’s experiences, as well as his own, whilst writing the script. Hall attended therapy after his own toxic relationship broke down. It got him thinking about the trauma of being diagnoses with HIV at a young age, the shame he felt about being gay, and internalised homophobia spilled into his relationship. He also spoke with other gay and bisexual men about their experiences and was surprised to hear that many of them had been through, in some form or another, a toxic relationship.

“I thought, hang on a minute, there’s a problem here,” he recalls. Delving further into his exploration of queer men’s experiences, Hall read Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd, turning the pages whilst crying. Then he looked at the research: higher rates of depression, alcoholism, substance misuse, anxiety and suicide within the LGBTQ+ community.

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“We want to be out and proud, we want to be in those Pride parades and waving a rainbow flag, we want to show young people it’s okay to be gay or trans,” Hall tells me. “There are people who have kids in our community, there’s acceptance, there’s love, there’s celebration… And there totally is and that’s totally right. But I think sometimes we want to slightly sweep under the carpet what lots of us are going through behind closed doors, because we don’t want anyone to weaponize that against us.”

It must be emotionally draining, even triggering, to write and perform a play that touches on these themes, I suggest. “Almost every time I go back to the script, I have a little cry,” replies Hall. “But the process of writing, any writer will tell you this, is pretty cathartic. Writing ‘First Time’ for me was almost like having trauma-based therapy, which I did eventually go on to have later.”

When he goes back to unpick his own story and the stories of other queer men, Hall says he does this with compassion and honesty. When he sat down to write ‘Toxic’, he told himself that he wanted to hold himself accountable for his previous actions or decisions – some of which he isn’t proud of. Equally, the play isn’t about getting back at his ex. “This isn’t a piece of revenge art,” he adds. “It’s about saying, despite all this, we didn’t just survive it, we’re thriving after it.”

Hall acknowledges the increase in hate that LGBTQ+ people are facing today and the need for positivity. He also admits he has been having sleepless nights over whether or not this is the story the queer community needs right now. “Lots of people are seeking queer joy and want to see that on stage, and I’m totally here for that,” he says. “But I think this is a story that actually says here’s the real world impact of that hate, here’s what’s happening in the domestic space or in the home.” He clarifies that he does not think queer people are bad people. “We survive all that stuff, we have all that extra stress, we all carry that around all the time. It’s bound to overflow in different ways. That takes an awful lot of resilience to overcome that.”

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For the show’s audience, Hall hopes that they watch it and are able to see some of the warning signs earlier, or that it sparks an internal conversation about self-worth and stepping away from a toxic relationship. “Sometimes survival means knowing when to leave” is the line that Hall says resonates the most with him – he wants his audience to take that away with them. There is hope, though. ‘Toxic’ might be about negative experiences that many queer audience members will be able to relate to, however, Hall reassures me his script does allude to hope too.

‘Toxic’ is produced by Dibby Theatre, Hall’s theatre production company which he co-runs with producer Ross Carey. Alongside starring in the show, Hall has been working alongside Carey to manage the team working behind the scenes. It’s a huge undertaking, with the pair not only preparing to put on the show in Manchester, but a 40 day tour in the Spring of next year awaits too. In addition, Dibby Theatre also works with the local community, through community outreach projects as well as a talent development programme for LGBTQ+ creators, producers and backstage crew. “It keeps me busy and out of trouble,” says Hall of the workload.

Hall is clearly passionate about helping the next generation of theatre-makers in Manchester. It’s a city that Hall argues “has always been incredible when it comes to the Arts” and one that is very much thriving with local artists. The poverty and depressing architecture, as he puts it, are inspiration for artists of all generations.

So what’s next for Nathaniel J Hall? Right now, he’s currently drowning in spreadsheets, as he prepares for next year’s tour. In the long term, Hall wants to leave a legacy of theatre created by local queer people. “We’re working to create a great company and a model where we can financially support the development of modern LGBTQ+ artists and other stories as well,” he explains. “The show isn’t going to be mine forever, and I want to pave the way for others to be able to tell their queer stories too.”

Nathaniel J Hall is a award-winning theatre-maker and Artistic Director of Dibby Theatre. Tickets for ‘Toxic’, which will be on stage at Manchester HOME from 18th October to 28th October, are now on sale.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.