More than a week before next Friday’s press performance, the Guardian has published its verdict – or rather, a range of expert verdicts - on the world premiere of Stuff Happens, David Hare’s play about the lead-up to the Iraq war (See News, 6 Jul 2004).

Following a front page news story in the main paper yesterday, the Guardian’s G2 review section today publishes an in-depth five-page analysis of the play, based on the first preview at the National’s Olivier auditorium on 1 September. However, rather than the opinion of the newspaper’s chief drama critic Michael Billington, last year voted by theatregoers as the critic they most trusted, the article gathers the views of eight commentators who were themselves somehow involved in the events depicted over the past two years.

The eight-strong panel are: former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned as leader of the House of Commons in protest over the war; Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe; Gavyn Davies, former chairman of the BBC board of governors, who resigned after publication of the Hutton Report into the death of government arms advisor Dr David Kelly; American former weapons inspector Scott Ritter; retired Lt Col Tim Collins, who was a commander during the Iraq invasion; and journalists and political commentators Polly Toynbee, David Aaronovitch and Max Hastings.

The judgements of the experts are fairly evenly split, with Cook, Aaronovitch, Collins and Hastings largely in favour of Hare’s presentation of events, and Toynbee, Ritter, Davies and Widdecombe decidedly less enthusiastic.

While Cook finds Stuff Happens “particularly powerful”, he did take issue with Nicholas Farrell’s Tony Blair, who he found to be “presented as too agonised”. “Some more self-doubt on his (Blair’s) part might have given a better chance of success to those who urged him to apply the brakes.”

Widdecombe dismisses the play, its “cardboard characters” and its “pedestrian script” as too one-sided. “I might have said that Stuff Happens is the most blatant subverting of art for the purposes of crude propaganda since that of Leni Riefenstahl (the Nazi filmmaker), but there is no art involved”, while others on the left felt that the play did not go far enough in its attack on Bush and Blair.

Hastings, formerly editor of the Evening Standard, is the most ardent supporter of Hare’s drama, calling it “the thinking person’s Fahrenheit 9/11; much more sophisticated, but just as angry.”

Stuff Happens, the final production in the Travelex £10 season in the NT Olivier, officially opens on 10 September 2004 and continues in repertory until 6 November. Directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner the cast includes Alex Jennings as George W Bush, Nicholas Farrell as Tony Blair, Desmond Barrit as Dick Cheney, Adjoa Andoh as Condoleezza Rice and Dermot Crowley as Donald Rumsfeld.

- by Terri Paddock