When I was in high school, I was that weird girl in your english lit class who actually liked Shakespeare. The Hogarth Shakespeare project gave 8 authors a chance to recreate one of the Bard’s classic plays & when I heard Jo Nesbo was taking on MacBeth, I had to read it. And he’s done a remarkable job.
It’s a daunting challenge. After all, we already know who did what & how it ends. But Nesbo has given it a modern facelift by turning it into a dark, violent tale of cops vs criminals set in an unnamed city drowning in drugs & corruption. Poor old Duncan is the shiny new Chief Commissioner of police while MacBeth heads up the SWAT team. Other familiar names have been assigned to characters on both sides of the law, their roles staying true to the originals.
I won’t dwell on the story except to say this is decidedly bloodier than “the Scottish play”. But there are several things that make it work. First, the setting. Nesbo vividly describes his city & it’s a pretty bleak place. Relentless rain, dark streets full of skeletal junkies & rusted out factories litter the landscape. Now add in cops & politicians who have been bought & paid for by the rival drug gangs that rule the city. The result is a grim & gripping read that practically oozes moral decay.
And that of course is the point. Shakespeare wanted to shine a light on the psychological & physical ramifications for those who seek power for power’s sake, how ambition without morality leads to carnage. He also distinguished between the sexes. Not that women can’t be just as reprehensible. It’s just their methods that differ. In this story, MacBeth’s wife may not care to actually get her hands dirty but she’s more than capable of inciting violence with well chosen words whispered in the right ears.
Nesbo has nailed the themes & even sneaks in symbolic moments such as blood that won’t wash off. What I found most startling is how relevant something written over 400 years ago still is. But then all you have to do is read the news to find modern examples of his characters. It’s not an easy read but Nesbo pulls it off with style. My only quibble is the wealth of long descriptive passages that at times stall any building tension.
As always, the wonderful Don Bartlett has done an outstanding job of translation. Recommended for fans of Shakespeare and/or gritty crime drama. If you’re keeping track of this series, next up is Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame taking on “Hamlet”.