'Macbeth' review: Jo Nesbø's book is an upgrade on Shakespeare’s play

Nesbø’s Macbeth is more relatable and interesting than even the original

May 26, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 05:11 pm IST

“Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth” is what Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth trills in your ear in a bid to remodulate canon with the lubricant of contemporary literature. If Shakespeare’s original, the source material for Hogarth Shakespeare’s 2018 retelling, was a didactic masterpiece, Nesbø’s book works like an intricate metaphor; you realise it’s ridiculous to think you can be cursed by the mention of the mere title of a play when you already exist in a world cursed by corruption, a vice that is basically the modern-day offshoot of the ugly ambition that undoes the eponymous hero/ villain of the Bard’s shortest tragedy.

In a world of corruption, gangs, drugs and shootouts can’t be far behind. Nesbø reimagines The Tragedy of Macbeth , a black tale of tumbling power hunger, as a nippy, rain-soaked, grey thriller set in a chronic tussle between law enforcement and the free market. And through pithy expositions from the towering character of Hecate, characterised as a suave drug lord who runs the town with the gossamer puppet-strings of ‘Brew’, an addictive narcotic he has cornered the market with, Nesbø sets you thinking about prevailing economic structures and whom they serve. The protagonist Macbeth, who’s a swashbuckling SWAT team leader; Banquo, his trusted mentor and sharpshooter; Duff, a bungling cop with shoes too large for his feet; Lady, a casino-owning femme fatale and the hero’s spurring missus; and Duncan, a too-good-to-be-tolerated Chief of Police, form the main cast.

Stage limits

Nesbø’s Macbeth is an upgrade on Shakespeare’s. The original Macbeth was complex and tortured, no doubt; but his identity was confined to being a character in a play, one that essayed a predetermined, almost academic archetype whose purpose was to epitomise and portray a universal human turpitude. After all, no matter the craftsmanship of a genius playwright or the expertise of an acting crew or the literary deconstruction purveyed by scores of English professors, the theatre stage simply does not have the bandwidth to conjure realism. Blessed with myriad hues, Nesbø’s Macbeth is far more relatable and interesting, far less vacuously ambitious, far more fleshed-out and layered, and, simply, far out. Nesbø gives you the trademark paranoid hallucinations, the bloodbath, the tyranny; but if the Thane of Glamis made you lament fate with glazed eyes, the chief of the Organised Crime Unit makes you examine fate with a fine-toothed dagger.

The novel’s setting is defined not by its details — vaguely 1970s in some grimy Scottish city whose cast of characters bear fetishised Elizabethan names from an old Shakespearean play. It is a mood; that Noir type, the kind that dribbles down the screen throughout the movie so that while the undulating contours of its plot constantly threaten to drag the viewer into their torrent, you are never quite allowed to get distracted or forget the prism through which the story is being told.

Nesbø’s recreation is comprised of an entirely original mise-en-scène, a ghostly “town without sun” where junkies hopped-up on Brew stagger about aimlessly under something like the Glasgow Effect. And he strives to sustain the overarching atmosphere of the story, through capsules of stark scene description, internal monologue, and ominous imagery, peppering the narrative with frissons of recognition and insightful parallels with the original.

Free will

Nesbø’s writing is not just cinematic, it’s quite poetic too, Don Bartlett’s expert translation from the Norwegian apart. In places, the narrative is able to marry the thrill of visual dynamism with sheer literary elegance.

Every character is constructed in an honest way and plays their part with integrity, not in that one-dimensional way that play scripts are generally doomed to follow, but in a way that confirms the inevitability of their actions. Well-designed backstories and flashbacks serve to skilfully sculpt the cast’s motivations in a way that fills in the gaps left by The Scottish Play .

Sure, “the house takes all; none of the players wins”. But while they’re playing their parts in this bleak-yet-pulsating page-turner, their prompted dialogues and wry thoughts contain big insights about Free Will, the human condition, and morality. Which, surely, is what the Bard of Avon was going for in the first place.

Macbeth; Jo Nesbø, Hogarth, ₹599

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