The Hogarth Press has conducted a bit of a grand experiment recently, asking eight currently publishing authors to reimagine some of Shakespeare’s works. Margaret Atwood tackled The Tempest in her most recent work Hag Seed, Jeannette Waterson interpreted A Winter’s Tale, and Jo Nesbø has given us a Macbeth set in Scotland in the 1970s. I found it wildly ambitious, appropriately dark, and mostly successful.
For those unfamiliar with the Scottish Play, as theater people refer to it, the plot is thus: a man comes from nothing, gets a taste of power, and is driven mad by it. Along the way, there are witches, enemies, and a particularly enigmatic woman. It’s dark, deep, twisted, and one of the greatest dramas ever crafted. It has been adapted repeatedly (my favorite is the BBC one with James McAvoy, for what it’s worth, where Macbeth is a chef) and each interpretation brings out a nuance I hadn’t thought of before. Mr. Nesbø’s is no different.
In his version, Inverness is plagued by a drug known as ‘brew’, which is brewed in cauldrons. The air and earth are both poisoned by industrialization and the drug lord, Hectate, is doing everything within his power to make sure the people are completely poisoned as well. Enter police commissioner Duncan, who is doing everything within his power to cleanse Inverness.
Our action picks up when Macbeth is promoted from head of SWAT to head of Organized Crime. This was a position that (Mac)Duff coveted, and that causes some tension, but the decision was made because Macbeth is a recovering brew addict. The powers that be felt he was particularly suited to addressing the rising issues in Inverness. His socioeconomic status as someone from a working class background puts him at odds with the rest of the city’s leadership, who all hail from upper class families. This dichotomy sits uncomfortably with Macbeth – a reality that Hectate uses to manipulate him to his own purposes.
And, as always, there is a woman. The love of Macbeth’s life calls herself Lady Macbeth, whose beauty is only rivaled by her ambition. Why should Macbeth stop at head of Organized Crime, she reasons. Why not police commissioner? Why not mayor?
There are prophecies, rivalries, and all the other accoutrements of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Mr. Nesbø doesn’t stray far from the beaten path of the plot, instead using his creative license with setting and prose. I have no problems with the setting choices – the atmospheric post-industrial Inverness works well for these purposes – and the author has a lot of experience in writing brooding, powerful men with moral quandaries on their hands.
What is less successful is the pacing. To call the start of this book ‘slow’ is generous. It moves, dear readers, slower than snails and it was a tough one to slog through. Once Hectate puts his plan into motion, it takes off like a shot, but I feel Mr. Nesbø spent far too much time introducing us to a plot and players that we are familiar with before getting on with it all. In full disclosure, though, I’m not a slow-burn-read sort of person. Thus, your mileage on my frustration may vary. There are other elements that are less successful, but this is a wildly ambitious project that mostly sticks the landing. Any fans of the Scottish tragedy are encouraged to explore this interpretation.