The talented wives who had their eyes, if not their hands, on the prize | Susannah Clapp

Barbara Trapido’s Marvelous Novel Brother of the More Famous Jack has just been reissued to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first publication. The title alone deserves a party. It puts its finger on a big category – the person who gets used to being an adjunct. It’s a category traditionally inhabited by women and was nailed in an excellent poem, also from the 1980s, by Selima Hill: “I am the wife of the man who won first prize.”

The prize Hill mentions was for a painting and I often remember her poem when looking at 20th-century artists and their male sibs or hubbies: Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious, Gwen and Augustus John, Winifred and Ben Nicholson. It came to mind again recently when I visited the village of Les Arques in the Lot region of France, where a museum is dedicated to the sculpture of Ossip Zadkine. It’s an intense experience. In the parish church, Zadkine’s huge crucifixion twists opposite a pietà; one room is filled with his wooden mythological works, another with bristling bronzes – a group under bombardment, arms outstretched, struck home hard.

In one corner is some utterly different work: vital, citrus, fluid paintings. They are by Valentine Prax, the sculptor’s wife, who guarded her chap’s work during the Second World War when he was in America, and burnt much to save it from the Nazis. Ah. Wife of the more famous Zad.

Masterclass in insight

Joyce DiDonato and conductor Pedro Pardo on stage in Barcelona at a Concern for Peace in Ukraine. Photograph: Enric Fontcuberta/EPA

A few weeks ago, I was given the best ever lesson in how to be a critic. By a performer. At London’s Linbury theatre, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato gave a masterclass to three young singers. Dressed like a principal boy – violet frock coat over jeans – she was a compelling presence; as if caught in headlights, the performers began to mirror her movements.

DiDonato was rapt but not reverent. She had a go at Covent Garden seat prices and put it to a tremendous bass that he need not be polite to Handel; he might suggest in his aria that the composer could go on a bit. She lit up Shakespeare, suggesting that Iago should have the dreadful sincerity of a false friend, delivering fake news to his Othello as if it hurt him to utter every word. She advised a soprano that she would break more hearts if she sang one phrase less perfectly. She managed to suggest they were all in this together; that she was totally on their side – and totally against their being less than superb.

I would be preening if I could get into a column a smidgen of her insight.

Scandi soft soap

David Archer (Tim Bentinck) – familiarity and even boredom make soaps compulsive viewing.
David Archer (Tim Bentinck) – familiarity and even boredom make soaps compulsive viewing. Photograph: Gary Moyes/PA

I complained to a Swedish friend the other day that I needed something non-compulsive to watch. I still haven’t dared to begin the last series of succession, knowing I’ll be transfixed for hours. She suggested Bonus Family, a Netflix series about divorces and stepchildren, not wildly dramatic and completely true to Swedish life. Together with Danny Robins’s nifty radio sitcom The Cold Swedish Winter, it has proved the perfect Scandi antidote to noir. It gets the soap balance between drama and daily routine just right; it also has superb child actors. Counseling sessions frame each episode: the therapists, a heterosexual couple, appear in dun-coloured homespun tunics and identical wire specs.

Having anticipated smoked glass and clear surfaces, I was skeptical about the clutter and porcelain ducks in the home of the matriarch. Very Swedish, my friend assured me. Other aspects were more stereotypical. Running through the agenda for an office meeting, a boss turns to his colleague and briskly addresses the last item: “Sex tonight?” The series has not, though, worked as methadone. It is not excitement that addicts you to a soap: familiarity – in the case of The Archers, equally boredom – is the thing. After one episode I was hooked.

Susannah Clapp is the theater critic of the Observer

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