The opening image of Théâtre National de Nice’s production of Peer Gynt belies the uniqueness and downright bizarre nature of what is to follow. Downstage centre, in the middle of an expansive empty set, is an off-white rectangle. Musicians, all dressed in black, begin to tune up, slowly forming a seated semi-circle around the central figures, a man and a woman. Snow begins to fall. This modern retelling of Ibsen’s play will return again and again to these classic images of romance and beauty, which serve to throw the rest of the show into even sharper relief.

Ibsen is so often adapted that it seems that more and more outrageous adaptations are demanded. Being the daughter of legendary director Peter Brook, the director Irina Brook may feel this pressure more keenly. This adaptation, after Henrik Ibsen rather than by him, is more fearless than most. The show is a mishmash of a huge number of different elements, styles and tones.

The language is in a very modern American dialect, though delivered in a dizzying plethora of accents. This is interspersed with the odd, but often strikingly beautiful poems of Sam Shepard, and the frankly hit-and-miss songs by Iggy Pop. The performances range from understated characters such as Shantala Shivalingappa’s otherworldly Solveig, and exaggerated clownish characters in outlandish costumes (and not just during the dream sequences). Ingvar Sigurðsson is a rather, flat declamatory lead, not quite delivering in the charisma and complexity necessary for Peer, though it is clearly an extremely demanding role, in a particularly demanding production. The stage design, by Noëlle Ginéfri, is a mix of utilitarian and elaborate, in what one often suspects may be a nod to Ibsen’s more naturalistic tendencies, such as when Åse, Peer’s mother (played by Mireille Maalouf) casually wheels on an oven at the beginning of the play. All this results in a rather exciting mess, dynamic and often genuinely funny, but not always for the right reasons.

But perhaps in doing this, Brook was remaining more faithful to the original than at first glance. Written in verse, it is part satire, part fable, part myth. Rather than trying to tame this beast, Brook has attempted to run with it. Some of the more cacophonous songs are met with derisive comments from other characters, and the interweaving of the music is accomplished. Much of it is funny, and some of it moving and profound, particularly in the second half, when Peer’s rags to riches and then back to rags tale gets into its stride. His search for redemption, the right way to live and how to be true to himself is one that will always resonate with many, but it is not always helped by the surrounding confusion. A puzzling, problematic but powerful Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt is playing Barbican until the 11 October. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican website. Photo by Monika Ritterhaus.