In the bleak aftermath of a fascist dictatorship and two devastating wars, life in 1950s Italy was unforgiving and often desperate, especially for the rural poor. Yet even the darkest times can be illuminated by the bright light of a great imagination like that of filmmaker Federico Fellini. In his cinematic masterpiece La Strada, a girl born into poverty is bought, beaten and eventually abandoned, yet there's a kind of magical unreality to story that somehow enables Gelsomina to transcend the brutal world around her.

More than 60 years after the film first appeared in cinemas, theatre director Sally Cookson reinterprets Gelsomina's “folk-tale like odyssey” on stage in a brand new production receiving its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. We spoke to Cookson and the cast to find out more about the show.

“The film was made in 1954, amidst the legacy of the fascist regime and the terrible destruction of the war, and Fellini was really reacting against that by showing what life was like for the underclass and what they did in order to survive,” says Cookson. “So it explores themes of absolute brutality and what happens when everything is taken away from you. But it also asks where the soul and the imagination and the creativity are in all of that. Gelsomina really represents the idea of the human spirit surviving regardless of everything that happens to her.”

Set against a backdrop of extreme poverty, La Strada begins with a widowed mother of many who is forced to sell her oldest daughter as an assistant to a travelling circus performer in the hope that she will learn a craft and make a living of her own. Yet through a combination of music, comedy, circus and the familiar filmic trope of a journey to self-discovery on “the road” (the literal translation of the title), Fellini moves beyond the grit of classic realism and into a dreamlike, philosophical realm where there is a chance for even the cruellest character to find redemption.

“Fellini uses a lot of symbolism and magic realism in the film, taking it out of the absolutely naturalistic depiction of what life was like, and that's something that I respond to. I always love to find a way of showing the imagination and the dreams of different characters,” she continues.

Of course, translating this into a stage production has been an enormous challenge for the team behind the show, but through a process of devising with a truly multi-talented cast, Cookson has developed a kind of theatrical language through which to tell the story.

“Finding a way to put this on stage has been an extraordinary mission, and there's still an awful lot more to discover, but what we are exploring is trying not to tell the story in a linear way. We're using music and a lot of physical storytelling to wrest it into a play,” she explains. “I make shows by devising, which means that we don't start with a script, so all of us – the composer, the designer, the cast, the movement director, the writer in the room – begin our journey at the same time, and the material is created collaboratively and organically.”

This means a lot more is expected of the performers than in a typical scripted show: in addition to traditional acting, physical theatre, singing and playing instruments, they're also required to play an active part in piecing the story and characters together. But far from finding it difficult, the cast seem to see this set-up as incredibly liberating, enjoying the chance to exercise creativity.

“The thing about this process is that it gives us a lot of freedom,” says Bart Sorocyznski, who plays the mysterious, almost Puckish fool, Il Matto. “I've barely met a director who is so 'ego-less' and laid-back. She gives us room to fool around, not only as performers but like kids, and I think that's important. In the end, acting is playing, and I think for Sally the main thing is to have fun.”

With his circus background, Sorocyznski is well accustomed to this style of working. Both Audrey Brisson, who plays the hapless innocent Gelsomina, and Stuart Goodwin, who plays the travelling strongman and her cruel master Zampano, also have experience of devising theatre, both with Cookson and with the acclaimed Kneehigh Theatre.

“I think today having companies where the director comes in and tells you how you're going to do things is something we're seeing less and less of,” says Brisson. “The beauty of this kind of theatre is that you keep working and the show keeps moving and evolving.”

The collaborative nature of the work means that certain aspects of the show will be dependent on the personalities and talents of the performers themselves – whether that's specific learned abilities like playing instruments or circus training, or 'soft skills' more specific to individual personalities.

“I've worked with Audrey before and she has this natural spirit of curiosity and joy that I don't think is something you can pretend to have,” says Cookson.

“Every one of us has a sensibility towards something that is not what we've chosen to specialise in. I'm not an amazing musician but I do play accordion, for example,” says Sorocyznski, explaining how both script and score are put together in a similar way. “We do contribute to the composition – everyone is part of that – so the musicians will feed ideas to the composer and then he decides what to do with them.”

In this way the music becomes integral to the production, capturing and reflecting moods and ideas expressed in dialogue and movement. But as important as the music is, Cookson is keen to stress that this is not a conventional piece of musical theatre.

“There is a lot of music and even songs in the show, but this is not a musical, precisely because the tone of the story does not fit the musical form. I'd describe it as a play with music,” she says. “If people come along expecting jazz hands and chorus numbers... well, they're not going to get that, although I hope that they'll still be enthralled and intrigued by the story.”

“I think it comes down to definition, but the big difference is that in a typical musical, an actor comes forward to express his feelings or desires in a song,” explains producer Kenny Wax, whose original plan to revive Lionel Bart's 1969 musical adaptation of the film eventually gave way to Cookson's rather different style of working. “That's not something you get here – Audrey and Bart and Stuart don't come up and do big numbers. But there is music underlying the whole thing. In a way it's more choral, which might sound a bit dry, but it's not at all – the music comes out quite organically in pubs and café scenes and weddings. There are thirteen performers in total – ten of them are actors, but even the three full-time musicians are very much integrated into the action.”

In addition to challenging audiences' preconceptions about how music can be used in a production, Sorocyznski also hopes the show might go some way to addressing imbalances in the way that circus is perceived and treated as compared with other performing arts.

“If you see how people work and how they hone their craft in a circus, you'll understand that it's a vocation which is tremendously hard,” he says. “Often you're doing eight shows a week at a very high level, and it's risky. Of course it's controlled risk, but there's risk nonetheless. But the sad thing is that even now, circus performers are not truly considered on a level with actors or singers or dancers. A lot of the time you mention circus to people and the first thing they think of is animal rights. It makes me angry. I hope this will be part of a move to change that. I think we're working towards that.”

In one sense, the drabness and isolation of the 1950s that the film depicts seems a world away today, when mobile devices provide constant entertainment on demand, when women's rights have come so far, and when loved ones can stay in touch from thousands of miles apart. But scratch the surface and you'll find there are a lot more similarities than you might think. For the La Strada team, at least, revisiting the story has brought home some uncomfortable truths about the society we live in now.

“For me I think it kind of reflects upon the refugees and people who don't have a home – the way that people try to make a home of what they have,” says Brisson. “That is something I remember from touring as a child, like having a pillow you always travel with because you want that association with home.”

“We're living in interesting times,” Goodwin agrees. “When you look at things like Trump and Brexit and the far right – all this fragmentation, it's not too big a leap to compare it to post-war Europe, especially with all these itinerant people. I think we've got to look these things in the face, but also to make sure we look for the joy in the story too.”

“As Fellini said, there is beauty in the tragedy of being human, and I think it's important to recognise that being human requires us deal with these big tragedies. In a way it's just holding up a mirror to what's still going on in our society: two women are still being murdered every week, which is a shocking statistic and I think the film taps into that misogyny. So the story is heartbreaking and it will be hard-hitting, but on the other hand I would never want to alienate an audience. As Brecht says, whatever subject matter youre dealing with, it always has to be entertaining – you're not going to achieve anything if you can't engage an audience. So I hope that this will be a powerful piece that audiences will really connect with and respond to.”

La Strada is at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 18 February.