Film director Federico Fellini once described an artist as “a provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one”. The quote could just as easily describe the unconventional heroine of his 1954 movie masterpiece, La Strada (The Road), and her journey through a world that mixes fairytale fantasy with the mundane and often bleak reality of life in impoverished rural Italy. 

Launching a brand new stage adaptation at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre next month, acclaimed director Sally Cookson describes the story as a “folk tale-like odyssey” about finding one's purpose in life. 

“My first encounter with the film was as a child,” recalls Sally. “My father was a fan and I happened to be in the room while he was watching it. At the time, I didn't understand it, but I was completely beguiled by the strangeness of it. It was only when I watched it again while I was at drama school in my 20s that I realised what a powerful piece of film it is, and it's stayed with me ever since then. So when the producer, Kenny Wax, came to me with the idea of adapting it for the stage, it felt like a really good match.”

The film follows the journey of a young woman, Gelsomina, who is effectively sold by her mother to serve as assistant to a travelling street performer. Zampano, a strongman who previously employed Gelsomina's older sister Rosa (now dead under mysterious circumstances), proves to be a cruel master, beating Gelsomina when she fails to meet his standards and abandoning her at the first sign of alcohol and pretty women. 

After some time on the road, the pair come across an itinerant circus which they briefly join. Before long, however, Zampano gets into a scrap with the Fool, Il Matto, who mocks Zampano's repetitive, unimaginative act and takes a shine to Gelsomina. While Zampano spends a night in jail, Gelsomina is faced with a choice: to join the circus and leave with them, to head off on a new adventure with Il Matto, or to await Zampano's release and return to the life she knows. 

For a director like Cookson, known for openly challenging gender norms in productions like her gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty, her consciously Wendy-centred Peter Pan, and a highly acclaimed adaptation of Jane Eyre, the story does present some challenges.

“Gelsomina can certainly be seen as a victim, but I'm determined that we find her... action, if you like. The relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is an abusive one, certainly, but Gelsomina doesn't just lie down and take it - she confronts him and questions and provokes all the way through the story. Like Jane Eyre, she's constantly looking for a better life and striving to discover her potential, but circumstances make that very difficult for her. I've also cast Audrey Brisson, who's a really feisty, incredibly brilliant and wonderfully strong actor, and she'll bring her personality to the part, which should make the character anything but passive.”

Under Cookson's unconventional style of direction, Brisson, along with the rest of the cast, will play a direct role in shaping and developing the show and characters, rather than simply interpreting a pre-written part. This means that the finished piece is likely to end up being substantially different from the film. 

“My way of creating theatre is through devising, which means we don't start with a complete script. The story itself is a very powerful one, so we will be following the narrative quite closely, but I think it would be really dangerous to just lift the film script straight onto the stage - I don't think that would make a very interesting piece of theatre. I'm working very closely with a dramatist called Mike Akers as well as with the actors, and we all collaborate together in the room to find the best way of bringing the story to life.”

This can make finding the right cast for the job a rather long and tricky process, however.

“Casting takes forever! I spend a long time casting because I need to find actors who are not only brilliant and skilled at interpreting characters as performers, but also people who are able to investigate a story and have ideas and come up with their own dialogue. On top of that, with this show, we're looking for very physical performers who can sing and move and play instruments, so it's a very multi-talented company.”

In the film, both Gelsomina and Il Matto are musicians, and a melancholy air - performed by Gelsomina on the trumpet and by Il Matto on a miniature violin - serves as an ongoing emotional link between them, even when they're apart. The stage version will be slightly different - Cookson's Fool plays the accordion rather than the violin, and a new score by her long-term collaborator Benji Bower will replace the original Nino Rota soundtrack - but collectively the cast will be performing all the music.

“It won't be a musical, but there will be a lot of music in the piece. I always use music to help place the story and create the right feeling, and I work very closely with Benji to do that. When we workshopped the story in spring, the music really helped us to excavate that folk story-cum-fairytale world. There's a real cross between a sort of gritty, realist world and a very imaginative, strange one, and having music enables us to lift it out of a naturalistic setting.”

Visually, audiences should not expect too great a degree of realism, either. The film shows Zampano and Gelsomina travelling through several locations, but while Katie Sykes, another frequent collaborator of Cookson's, will be designing the sets, the team will be employing a whole range of different techniques to evoke a sense of the world and the characters' passage through it.

“You have to engage the audience's imagination - I won't be feeding it all to them on a plate. We will be creating the atmosphere of the impoverished Italian roadside through very simple means, but I'm not entirely sure how we'll do it yet. That's what's really exciting about devising - at this stage, before we go into rehearsals, we haven't got all the answers yet.”

As well as their musical abilities, Cookson also intends to make use of the circus skills of some of her leading performers, though again, not to the extent that this becomes a circus show rather than a piece of theatre. 

“I want to use the real skills of the circus performers, but also the skills of the actors to theatrically create the family of the circus in an imaginative way. So I think we'll be using a mixture of the skills these actors have and then finding ways of suggesting things like someone on a trapeze without actually having them up in the air.”

Unusually for a touring rather than an in-house production, the show will be making its debut at the Belgrade Theatre in February, at the start of a longer UK tour which will eventually end with a London run. 

“It was ultimately down to the producers, but I was very supportive of the idea. It's great to take work out into the regions and I'm really happy to be working in Coventry. I love the theatre there - I think it's a fantastic space and they've got great energy. It's also really important to me to bring my work to theatres that haven't seen it yet, so it's very exciting for me.”

La Strada shows at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Saturday 11 to Saturday 18 February, and The REP, Birmingham, from Monday 8 to Saturday 13 May