The National Theatre re-asserts its place not just at the heart of our theatrical life but also at the heart of our national (and international) political life, making headlines of its own with a play plucked from events that have dominated the international headlines for the past two years.

Premiered on the eve of the third anniversary of September 11th, which set this train of events in motion, David Hare’s Stuff Happens takes its title from American Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s response to the looting of Baghdad after it had been invaded: “Stuff happens…. And it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

Does that include our politicians? The beliefs that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction, that have in fact never been found, and that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, that has never been proved, led to a war that untidily killed untold (and never counted) civilians and even more untidily has made the world more, not less, susceptible to the kind of terrorism it sought to stamp out.

Downstairs in the NT Lyttelton, artistic director Nicholas Hytner has directed Alan Bennett’s wonderfully wry and intoxicating play The History Boys about the subjectivity of historical interpretation. Meanwhile, upstairs in the NT Olivier – as part of the Travelex £10 season that importantly makes it available to everyone – Hytner now directs this sober, reflective but nevertheless galvanising history play that, as Hare asserts in a programme note, “happens to be centre on very recent history.”

While Stuff Happens seeks to steer an apparently objective documentary path through the facts that made up the US and UK’s drive towards conflict, Hare’s own arrangement of those facts into a compelling narrative – and our own memories of how we felt at the time, since no one can possibly come neutral to this play – leads us to our own conclusions

A play about global politics and process that stretches from the White House and Camp David to Downing Street and the United Nations, Hare’s play and Hytner’s production of it is a tremendous technical achievement as it adroitly marshals some 45 characters and 24 scenes, crowded onto a spartan circular stage that designer Christopher Oram has superbly dressed to suggest different locations via a frame at the rear of the stage.

But it’s also a considerable dramatic achievement, too, proving the theatre’s unrivalled ability to quickly respond, analyse, debate and provoke. The play bristles with ideas and philosophies, and comes alive with an impassioned, informed and, above all, entertaining immediacy. A superb ensemble cast animate it with an extraordinary vividness, with stand-outs including Alex Jennings as George Bush, Joe Morton as a completely compelling Secretary of State Colin Powell trying but failing to urge caution, Desmond Barrrit as Dick Cheney, Dermot Crowley as Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Ian Gelder as Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and Nicholas Farrell as our own PM, frequently stricken like a rabbit in the headlights as he struggles to keep pace with the Americans.

This may not necessarily be the best new play the National has ever done, but it’s one of the most important. See it.

- Mark Shenton